Actions show District prioritizes charter operators

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Closed-door meetings, postponed renewal votes and approvals of underperforming charters create questions about transparency.

The following commentary was published by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook on June 12, 2017

by Lisa Haver and Lynda Rubin

In September 2016, the School Reform Commission posted renewal resolutions that had been postponed for over a year for Mastery Gratz, Mastery Shoemaker, and Mastery Clymer; all three resolutions were withdrawn just before the meeting. They were re-posted in October and November and withdrawn before both meetings. Although test scores indicated that serious improvement was needed at two of the schools, Mastery objected to the conditions recommended by the Charter Schools Office.

In March 2017, the board of Russell Byers Charter School filed a request with the School Reform Commission for permission to relocate some students to an auxiliary location. The SRC approved the request at its May 1 action meeting.

During that time, the District was holding secret meetings with several charter operators and investors, including Laurada Byers, founder and board chair of Russell Byers Charter, and Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools. According to Avi Wolfman-Arent’s story in NewsWorks, high-ranking District officials including Superintendent William Hite, Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson, and Charter Schools Office Executive Director DawnLynne Kacer met over a six-month period with representatives from several charter companies, along with charter supporter and investor Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.

The purpose of those meetings, according to District officials, was to formulate a replacement for the state’s existing charter law. Hite told NewsWorks, ironically: “We wanted whatever we came up with to be transparent and predictable.”

In fact, those closed-door meetings ran concurrent with both the charter renewal and new charter application processes. In February, the SRC voted on three new charter applications after reviewing reports presented by Kacer and her staff. That office also presents recommendations on whether existing charters should be renewed.

On May 1, with less than one week’s notice, the SRC voted to renew eight of the 23 charters due for renewal. Before the meeting, the SRC made a decision to postpone, apparently indefinitely, voting on the 11 schools whose managers refused to agree to what they characterized as unfair conditions by the District. Were some of those same charter operators present at the closed-door meetings?

Far from the District and charters having a relationship of “bickering,” as the article refers to, the SRC continues to prove that the interests of charter operators take precedence over those of District stakeholders.  At its last meeting, the SRC approved yet another new charter, denied just three months ago, despite Kacer’s statement that the CSO found “no substantive differences” between the original and revised applications. The SRC has allowed clearly substandard charters such as Aspira and Universal to continue to operate by simply kicking the can down the road for more than a year (in Aspira’s case, more than two years) and offering no explanation to the public.

Serious questions have arisen about how these private meetings between District officials and charter executives have influenced the District’s decisions over the last six months. Kacer sat across the table from managers and board chairs of the very schools for which she decides whether to recommend renewal.  At the May 1 SRC meeting, she referred several times to the “Mastery family of schools.”

District officials told NewsWorks that the purpose of the meetings was to form an alliance to stop Pennsylvania House Bill 97, a new charter bill that would have serious financial repercussions, from being passed. That bill, of course, would have to be palatable to the charter owners and investors including Mark Gleason, who in 2015 offered the SRC $35 million to approve 39 new charters. Offering government officials large sums of money to pass a resolution is the definition of a bribe, but the SRC actually considered it. This year alone, the SRC has approved five resolutions in as many months for PSP initiatives in public schools. Why were no independent education activists — no parents or educators —invited to the table?

When public officials meet with organizations that they have been entrusted to regulate, the people have a right to know exactly what they are doing and saying. Hite had many opportunities during those six months to inform the taxpayers who pay his salary what he and his staff were negotiating with charter operators.

No one other than those in the room knows what was discussed or negotiated. After months of secrecy, the District cannot expect anyone to trust its word on this. We don’t know all of the players or the totality of what was discussed. The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools has filed a right-to-know request asking for the names of all who attended, minutes of meetings, and all communications.

Parents, educators, and community members who advocate for public schools at SRC meetings know that their microphone will be turned off at exactly three minutes. But charter managers get all the time in the world.

Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS).  Lynda Rubin is a retired school counselor and legislative liaison for APPS.

 

 

 

School Reform Commission still a destructive agency

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by Lisa Haver
published in the Philadelphia Daily News – June 8, 2017.

In April, the Inquirer/Daily News conducted a reader survey on whether City Council should hold hearings on Council’s $17 million budget.  No surprise that most who responded voted “Yes.” Taxpayers want to know how elected officials are spending their money, and they want to have their say about it.

 Most Philadelphians probably feel the same about appointed officials, especially those who hold the purse strings on a budget that totals almost $3 billion. The School Reform Commission, after 16 years of everything but reform, continues to earn its reputation as the city’s least transparent, most destructive governmental body, second only, perhaps, to the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

My reader survey would ask these questions:

 Should the SRC release the district’s $2.9 budget before the public hearing?

The district’s first official budget hearing on April 20 opened with the unveiling of its lump-sum budget. Alliance members who requested that it be released before the meeting, so that the public could review it and ask informed questions, were told by the SRC that it was “ever-changing” and would not be available until the meeting.

Should the SRC hold hearings on contracts over $10 million? How about $50 million?

At its Feb. 16 meeting, the SRC approved two contracts for food services totaling $90 million.  No hearings were held; there wasn’t even a staff presentation at the meeting itself. In March, the SRC renewed its contract with Durham bus service, again without deliberation, for $69 million. A subsequent news story revealed that the district had just sent this company, which it hired after outsourcing all of its bus services, a legal notification that it was in breach of contract. Several parents had complained in writing and at SRC meetings that their children were not being picked up on time or at all several days a week.

Should the SRC hold hearings on reviewing and amending its official policies at 9 a.m.?

 The newly created Policy Committee has scheduled its meetings for a time when the teachers who must implement the policies, and the students and parents who will be affected by them, are unable to attend or provide any insight on how the policies could best be formulated and carried out.

Should the SRC be allowed to vote without telling the people exactly what they are voting on? 

The SRC has decided that in some cases it will reveal only the topic to be voted on.  Full resolutions are composed and posted after the meeting.  The official SRC minutes then report that those are the resolutions they actually voted on.  Like to see City Council or the state Legislature try that one.

Should the SRC be allowed to ignore its own rules?

At an April meeting with only three commissioners present, one left early, without notice; the SRC, in violation of its own bylaws, continued without a quorum.  At a meeting the following week, the same commissioner left again, missing not only most of the public speakers but an hourlong staff presentation on the sole topic under consideration.

Should the SRC schedule a meeting in which it plans to decide on renewals of 23 charter schools with less than a week’s notice?

The district’s budget shows that it will spend $894 million — about one-third of the budget — on charters next year. Shouldn’t the SRC allow enough time for those paying the tab to read the reports? They may want to ask why schools that have met none of the standards are being recommended for renewal.

Should the SRC publicly deliberate before voting on significant financial, academic and policy resolutions?

The SRC approved contracts totaling $149.2 million at its February meeting; it spent $173.1 million in March. Resolutions are voted on in batches of 10 or 15, with little explanation of why.

How do we reform the School Reform Commission? By abolishing it. Philadelphians have the right, as all other Pennsylvanians do, to decide who will represent them on an elected school board.

Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.

Also see:
Lisa Haver: It Is Time to Establish Democratic Control of Philadelphia’s Public Schools | Diane Ravitch’s blog – June 9, 2017

Richard Migliore: Turzai’s letter raises issues of public concern

The Philadelphia Notebook published the following Op Ed from APPS member Rich Migiore.

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Speaker of the House Mike Turzai’s recent letter to the School Reform Commission criticizing the District’s charter school renewal process raises serious issues of public importance. All of us who care about public education should be alarmed at what was said by Representative Turzai.

Turzai not only levels an unfounded attack on the SRC members, he attacks Philadelphia in his letter and makes a not very veiled threat to the SRC members: if they do not renew the charters in question, funding for Philadelphia’s schools will be in jeopardy. That is a misuse of his office.

SRC Chairwoman Joyce Wilkerson responded to Turzai in a letter defending the SRC’s charter renewal process. As a retired teacher and principal, and an advocate for public education, I also responded directly to Turzai. My 8-page letter to him addresses the impropriety of his actions and the issues which his actions raise. They are issues of public concern.

Neither the District’s renewal process for the 26 schools in question, nor the SRC’s conditions for renewal are “overreach or inappropriate” as Turzai described them. Pursuant to the Charter School Law, the SRC and the District have an “affirmative legal duty” to assess whether our charter schools are meeting the requirements for student performance, meeting the “conditions” of its charter, and to determine whether the charter school is complying with applicable law.

If not, the SRC has the legal duty and responsibility to “revoke or not to renew” the charter. That can occur “during the term of the charter or at the end of the term.” The “causes for nonrenewal or termination” are stated quite clearly in Section 17-1729-A of the Charter School Law. The District’s recommendations for conditions are not only prudent, they are necessary for the basic functioning of those charter schools.

Such negotiated conditions are legal and appropriate to regulate those charter schools in the best interests of all of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren and our school community. Without those conditions, it would be the affirmative legal responsibility of the SRC to close those schools.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that the relationship between a local school board and a charter school is “regulatory.” That is exactly what the SRC members are doing. They are engaging in their public responsibility to the people of Philadelphia and the children in charter schools to regulate Philadelphia’s charter schools.

Partly in response to the public outcry about the lack of oversight of the charter schools, the SRC increased the staff of its Charter School Office, which is now led by the very able DawnLynne Kacer.

The question of whether a charter school should be renewed requires a very public process with full transparency. The PA Sunshine Act protects the public’s right to “notice and opportunity to comment meaningfully” on all proposed actions of the SRC and other school boards in Pennsylvania. The Sunshine Act codifies constitutional principles of public governance.  Our right to notice and opportunity to comment applies to any action of the SRC, including those pertaining to charter schools. It is an inalienable right of the citizens of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

The public has a right to know what is written in those schools’ charters, including all conditions and requirements. We have a right to copies of those documents and any proposed resolutions of the SRC or the charter schools themselves. We have a right to copies before any votes are taken by the SRC. That is required by the Sunshine Act.

Those of us who believe in democracy, and that our public schools should be fully governed by locally elected school boards, also believe that our local school boards should not be circumvented or short circuited in any way. Without adherence to the due process of public decision-making — we cease to have truly public schools. Democracy is the purification process for the ills that plague our schools. Democracy is the sine qua non for greatness in our public schools.

The SRC’s decision to revoke a school’s charter does not have to mean displacement of students or shuttering of the building. A charter revocation only means that the SRC becomes the school’s board of trustees and Superintendent Hite becomes its superintendent. The certified teachers on staff can immediately be hired by the District.

Charter schools’ boards of trustees have the right to pursue an appeals process when the school’s charter is revoked or terminated.  When public schools are closed, or converted to a charter school, there is no appeals process for those students and parents.  Perhaps Turzai could use the powers of his office to rectify that injustice.

There are many fine charter schools which operate properly and in the best interests of its students; those schools have no problem being renewed by the SRC. Our charter school community should embrace the public decision-making process for the renewal of our deserving charter schools.

Turzai knows who has the legal standing and the responsibility to enforce the responsibilities of charter schools and the rights of its students to an adequate education — it is the School Reform Commission. The very same body imposed on Philadelphia by the state legislature in which he serves. Until he and his colleagues vote to return the governance of public schools to those who live in Philadelphia, he should let the SRC carry out its duties.