Board Must Reject Aspira Applications for More Charters

By Diane Payne

Despite its record of failure, Aspira Inc. submits applications for new charters to the Board of Education every year.  Although their applications have been consistently denied, Aspira costs the district an unknown price tag to process their applications and hold the application hearings every year. The application narrative for Alegria goes on for 143 pages, and the narrative for Bilingual for 164 pages–not including the more than 100 pages of attachments for each.  The district’s Charter School Office will spend hours reviewing and checking the information on these applications, taking precious time away from the huge task of monitoring the renewals each year for the city’s existing 85 charter schools.  The time, money, and energy spent in multiple hearings complete with hearing officers, CSO personnel, stenographers, and all the other trappings result in a total spent that we can only guess; the district never discloses this cost to the public. 

These applications, like Aspira applications in previous years, contain dense reading replete with buzzwords and jargon but often lacking in specifics.  Is the clutter of generalities an attempt to hide the applicant’s deficiencies?  In the Alegria narrative, almost two pages are devoted to bullet points addressing “exemplary” climate, staff, students, and more.  Two examples of exemplary expectations for the staff: “Supporting the school’s mission, vision, values and goals in attitude and action; working to create conditions and opportunities that promote student success within and outside of the school walls.” What does that even mean?  Filling the narrative with vague generalities like this only highlights the lack of substance and waste of resources these applications bring.The Charter School Office (CSO) evaluation of both schools mirror the concerns listed in this report and add concerns regarding curriculum deficiencies.  In addition, the CSO notes that the application seems to be an unmodified version of Aspira’s previous attempts at submitting new applications.  The CSO also notes that innovation (a feature that Charter Schools are expected to provide over traditional public schools) is not present.

ASPIRA Dr. Ricardo F. Alegria Preparatory Charter School

Proposed Location: 4322 N. 5th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19140
Target Neighborhood: Kensington and Olney: zip codes 19140, 19134, 19120 (same as last year)
Management Company: Aspira Inc.
Real Estate Manager: Ace/Dougherty, LLC Attachment 41 lists this as a non-profit – is that what Aspira is claiming or is that a typo?  There is no federal tax information available on the website Guidestar, which provides IRS information via 990 forms for all non-profits.  The office of this real estate manager is on the 3rd floor of the proposed school’s address
Projected Enrollment: At scale, 1,035 students in grades K-8 (same as last year’s application) Year 1 690, Year 2 805, Year 3 920, and Year 4 1,035.
Proposed School Leader: Glenda Marrero, identified as assistant principal at Stetson Middle School, a former Renaissance charter which the Board of Education returned to district control after years of substandard performance and financial improprieties by Aspira.  Is Marrero still at Stetson or is this just copied from last year’s application?
Leadership Team: Glenda Marrero has worked for Aspira every year (except one) since 2008.  Diane R. Greening has worked for Aspira since 2010; Timothy J Shanahan has been with Aspira since 2016; Kelly Hirsch has been with Aspira since 2010; Kelly M. Bucca has been with Aspira since 2017; Jamie Kastner has been with Aspira since 2010 (Kastner is also an education consultant with JLKEduconsulting.
Founding Members: Daisy D. Rosa, Alfredo B. Calderon, Walter V. Yakabosky, Ana A. Benitez
Proposed Board: No attachment was labeled “Proposed Board Members”.  Attachment 7 is labeled “Resumes FR”; presumably this is the proposed board members: Angelica Martinez, Rachel L. Duprey, Joannna Otero-Cruz, Kevin C. Glover
Estimated Cost Per Year: The CSO report does not contain any cost estimate.  This estimate is based on an existing charter school with an enrollment of 1,075 students.  Alegria’s proposed enrollment is slightly less so their cost would be slightly less.  The District fails to make any attempt at making the cost of this proposed charter public.  For one year, the estimated cost for an existing charter school with 1,075 students is $15.8 million; 5 years would cost $63.3 million.  A very expensive experiment for an operator with little to show for success.

ASPIRA Bilingual College and Career Preparatory Academy

Proposed Location: 6301 N 2nd Street, Philadelphia, Pa 19120
Target Neighborhoods: Kensington, Hunting Park, and Olney (zip codes 19134, 19120, 19140)
Management Company: Aspira Inc.
Real EstateCompany: Aspira Inc. and ACE/Doughtery LLC
Enrollment: 1,200 at scale.  Year 1 – 300 students in grades 9 & 10, Year 2 – 300 students in grade 11, Year 3 – 300 students in grade 12.
Proposed School Leader: Travis Carson
Proposed Leadership Team: Lillian Alcaro, Marcus S. Freeman, Katrina Condos, Christopher Jennings, and Travis Carson.  Carson is listed as the proposed principal. He held various positions at the failed Olney Charter High School and has worked for Aspira since 2017.  His resume lists his current position at Olney High, even though that school was taken back to district control last school year.  Does Carson work for the school district or is he in another position within Aspira now?  
Founding Members: Daisy D. Rosa, Walker V. Yakabosky, Ana A. Benitez, and Aspira CEO Alfredo B. Calderon (who settled a sexual harassment and retaliation suit for $350,000 in 2017).
Proposed Board Members: Marcus Allen, Walter V Yakabosk, Daisy D. Rosa, Kevin G. Glover, S. Richard Harrigan (Harrigan’s resume indicates that he resides in NYC or Northern NJ), Robert Stewart IV (Stewart’s previous and current work, education experience does not appear to be Philadelphia based.  Is he a Philadelphia resident?)  Note: both Bilingual and Alegria applications list Kevin G. Glover as a proposed board member, raising questions about possible conflicts and ethics violations.  
Estimated Cost Per Year: The CSO report does  not contain any cost estimate.  This estimate is based on an existing charter school with an enrollment of 1,075 students.  Bilingual’s proposed enrollment is slightly more so their cost would be slightly more.  The District fails to make any attempt to make the cost of this proposed charter public.  For one year, the estimated cost for an existing charter school with 1.075 students, is $15.8 million; 5 years would cost $63.3 million.  A very expensive experiment for an operator with little to show for success.

Transparency, Accountability, Actual Outcomes   
Transparency and accountability are crucial components in operating a charter school.    Children, families, and the community deserve a full understanding of the academic, operational, and financial aspects of their school.  The taxpayers who fund all public and charter schools are entitled to know who are being paid–as faculty, administration, management, contractors, and consultants–and how effective they are in educating their students. Charter schools in general, and Aspira in particular, have come under fire for lacking both transparency and accountability in financial and operational practices. The PA Auditor General, in a 2018 report on Aspira’s financial practices, characterized the organization as “the fox guarding the hen house.”  

In both application narratives, Aspira refers to the “success” of existing Aspira schools: “Demonstrated success with recruiting and successfully serving a high percentage of low income and special needs students. ASPIRA has successfully operated two K-8 schools, Pantoja and Hostos for many years.”  Omitted from this narrative is the recent return to District control of two failing Aspira schools: Stetson Middle School and Olney High School. 

The Charter School Office (CSO) last renewal reports for De Hostos and Pantoja lists “Meets Standards” for academic achievement and were renewed for 5 years with conditions. However, the district reports do not explain why the latest School Progress Report (SPR) noted Academic Achievement at 24% which puts them into the lowest category–Intervene–for Pantoja and 40% and the second lowest category–Watch–for de Hostos.  For both schools, the SPR lists “Approaches Standards” for Operational Performance and “DOES NOT MEET STANDARDS” for Financial Performance. 

Aspira Cyber charter school also exemplifies a failure to succeed.  The Future Ready PA Index reports these results:  Math-2.1% proficiency.

Good stewards of public funds and children’s education must look at the whole picture of the existing schools under Aspira Inc.  Although Aspira Inc.’s stated mission to serve low-income Hispanic communities is noble; mission statements do not replace actual outcomes. The application itself, as already indicated, appears to be a copy-and-paste of previous applications.  In addition, It is unclear why the floor plan attachment for both the elementary school and the high school contained blank pages, why the tenant agreement attachment contained blank amounts, or why some of the many attachments were simply blank templates. 

 How Aspira Would Spend Public Funding 
Determining where the money goes among the Aspira charter schools, the management company Aspira Inc., and the real estate company (ACE/Dougherty LLC) would take professional auditing.  We do know that the top executives at Aspira Inc. are well compensated in the non-profit management business. The most recent information from Internal Revenue Service 990 forms shows the comparatively high salary and compensation for Aspira Inc. administrators:  CEO,  $226,707;  COO, $268,149; Controller, $209,477; Senior Director, $137,769; Senior Director, $153,717; Program Director, $158,152.

Why do the lease documents for both schools contain blank amounts for rent?  The lease attachment outlines the millions of dollars of current Aspira bond debt with the intent to borrow more.  According to the lease attachment, the current debt is somewhere close to $20 million.  It would be irresponsible for the district to put an additional burden on taxpayers to increase that debt.  Why is ACE/Dougherty, LLC listed as a non-profit in Attachment 41,  yet no such company can be found on the GuideStar website which lists the IRS 990’s for nonprofits?  In addition, why is there no website for ACE/Dougherty, LLC?  A google search only turns up two business directory notations for this company.  The elementary school would occupy and pay rent for the building listed as ACE/Dougherty’s address.  The high school would occupy the 3rd floor of 6301 N. 2nd Street.  The applicant identifies both ACE/Dougherty and Aspira Community Enterprise, Inc., as landlords. Both share the same address.  Who are these entities?  Who are the staff?  How are they related?  Why does this company have two names but one address?  Although millions in tax dollars would be paid to these schools if approved, Aspira provides no answers to these questions. 

The Board must deny these Aspira applications.