by Diane Payne
January 4, 2018
Ringing Out 2017
All five members of the School Reform Commission were present. The Head of the Office of General Counsel, Lynn Rauch, was introduced at this meeting; she replaces Interim Director Miles Shorr. Five members of APPS spoke in defense of public education. To view their testimony, please go to APPSPhilly.net. APPS members attend every SRC meeting to monitor and report on questionable, often destructive, SRC decisions that undermine public education–actions that otherwise would go unreported and undetected.
Sunshine Act Again Behind the Clouds
The SRC continues to violate the PA Sunshine Act, even after the 2015 court-ordered settlement between the district and APPS. The SRC agreed to post resolutions two weeks prior to every meeting to give the public ample opportunity to review them. However, just one week before this meeting, resolutions were posted on the non-renewal of Aspira Olney and Aspira Stetson, and on the revocation of Khepera Charter. These resolutions did not just pop up unexpectedly. These charter renewals had been tabled for over a year and a half. It is amazing that this body continues to flaunt the letter and spirit of the Sunshine Act as well as the stipulations of the APPS court settlement.
Commissioner Bill Green made a motion to add a walk-on resolution (SRC-10) to increase the seat enrollment of Independence Charter school by 25 seats. Because of the APPS Sunshine Act agreement, audience members were permitted to sign up to speak for or against the resolution, but there was no explanation or context given for the action. Regular attendees were not surprised to see Green once again going above and beyond for charter investors.
Dr. Hite began by thanking individuals and organizations who have made donations to the school district. While it is sometimes laudable to donate for specific purposes, our schools should not be looked on as charity cases. They are public institutions that should receive equitable funding from public sources. It is also essential to safeguard against special interests seeking special outcomes that may not be in the best interest of public education.
Dr. Hite noted that thirty schools have been selected for “paint stabilization” in efforts to make all schools safe from asbestos damage. Facility conditions are an ongoing concern, and parents at many schools have organized to make schools healthier.
A change to the kindergarten start date raised questions and concerns that were not addressed. Dr. Hite stated that as proposed in resolution SRC-5, kindergarten students would begin on the same date as all other students instead of five days later as had been the practice for years. The resolution states that kindergarten teachers will conduct their parent meetings from August 20th to 24th. The resolution has some vague mention that kindergarten teachers can “elect” to have a fifth meeting sometime before the start of the school year. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract, article XVIII (Working Conditions of Teachers), D, 11 states, “There shall be five (5) meeting free interview days for all kindergarten teachers at the beginning of each school year.”
Four meeting dates does not meet the requirement of the contractual five. Why is the district allowed to impose on teachers to figure out on their own time for that fifth meeting date? Kindergarten teachers will be missing professional development and room preparation time during these days. Experienced educators know that those first days of school can be confusing and chaotic. Why would Dr. Hite want to have our newest and youngest students enter into that environment rather than assuring them as smooth and nurturing a start as possible?
Kindergarten is the foundation of every child’s education. There is much about the SDP’s expectations and practices to make one wonder where the early childhood specialists are in this district. This push to rush kindergarten teachers and parents into a hurried beginning to the school year does not bode well for the foundation which we should be building for our students.
The district imposed major calendar changes including this kindergarten start date without giving any clear reason why it was necessary or any acknowledgment of the disruption it would cause families. Now, the families of kindergarten students will have their summer vacations changed yet again. Families who want to vacation together in August, the most popular time because of warm water temperatures at the shore and in the mountains, will not be able to do so. The district spent $500,000 (February 16, 2017 Resolution A-23) to change a calendar that didn’t need to be changed. What is the benefit in a calendar change that forces students and teachers into buildings in the dog days of August? For years, until they stopped them without notice, the SRC held monthly Strategy and Policy Meetings at which issues like this one could be discussed and the community could be heard from.
Apprentice Program Presentation
Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd gave a presentation on the Maintenance Apprentice Program for SDP graduates. This program will place qualifying graduates into apprentice programs that will result in job placement within the district’s various maintenance fields.
SRC Allows Failing Charters to Bilk Taxpayers
DawnLynne Kacer, Executive Director of the Charter School Office (CSO), gave updated presentations on the non-renewal recommendations for Aspira Stetson and Aspira Olney, originally made by the CSO in April of 2016. APPS members have asked every month since then why the SRC has refused to act on this issue. Taxpayer dollars have flowed into the Aspira network for over a year and a half despite the company’s failure to meet standards in financial, academic and organizational categories. Kacer reported that Aspira Inc was charging an astronomical management fee of 28% and that the fee had doubled within the past two years. She noted that these fees are “far in excess” of most other charter schools’ management fees which fall between 5% and 11%.
The management fee was not the only unnerving news about Aspira. The financial improprieties cited in the original CSO report were never corrected; in fact, Kacer reported that the financial picture is actually worse. (To see the full report scroll to the Charter School Reports.)
The CSO evaluates schools in three areas before making recommendations on renewals: academic success, organization compliance and viability, and financial health and sustainability. Stetson approached standards in academics one year, but in general was trending downward. The school failed to meet standards in organizational or financial areas.
Aspira Olney’s evaluation was virtually the same: approached standards in the academic category while trending downward, but did not meet standards in the organizational or financial categories.
Both Olney and Stetson are “Renaissance” schools. That is, the district handed control of them over to Aspira Inc., who promised to make “dramatic” improvements in the school. It was apparent two years ago that Aspira had not come close, but the SRC allowed them to continue to operate.
In addition, there were several other allegations of sexual harassment and numerous media reports of fraud. The SRC made no move to investigate. They ignored the CSO’s recommendation, tabled the matter, and continued to send tax dollars to Aspira Inc. Incredibly, Aspira Inc. has submitted applications for two additional charters in the district in the upcoming round of charter school applications.
In June 2017, the Charter School Office recommended non-renewal for Khepera Charter School. After the SRC voted to approve the revocation of this school’s charter, public hearings were held under the supervision of Hearing Officer Rudolph Garcia, Esq., who presented his findings to the SRC at this December meeting. Garcia’s 170-page report, including 91 exhibits, was filed after eighteen witnesses were heard at six public hearings, after which there was a 30-day public comment period. Garcia recommended upholding the SRC’s decision to revoke. He reported that in all four categories considered (academic performance, fiscal management, violation of laws, and violation of charter standards) Khepera had major problems and violations. Garcia explained that at the end of the hearing period the question considered is: Would students be better off at other schools? His answer: yes. The SRC did vote to accept the hearing officer’s recommendation and revoke Khepera’s charter. A lot of time, money and energy went into a prolonged and lengthy process to move to close a school with an extensive list of problems and violations, yet no process at all is afforded a neighborhood public school the district decides to close. (Just look at how easily Wister Elementary was handed over to Mastery Charters.) Khepera has the right to appeal the SRC’s decision to the state and to Commonwealth Court if they choose to.
Block Voting, No Deliberation
As usual, the commission voted in large blocks; spending money, accepting donations and making choices for our schools and students without comment or deliberation. Resolutions SRC-1 to SRC-6 (with the exception of SRC-4 which was a policy resolution for review only at this meeting) were a unanimous YES. SRC-7 Khepera revocation brought a unanimous YES vote. SRC-8 and SRC-9, Non-renewal for Olney and Stetson approved 4-1; Jimenez voted No on both. SRC-10, walk-on resolution to increase Independence Charter school seats, passed 3-2, with Wilkerson and McGinley voting No. Resolutions A-1 to A-20 all passed unanimously, as did Resolutions B-1 to B-8. Thirty-eight resolutions passed in 6 block votes.
The SRC spent $10,761,647.00 and accepted $4,027,145.00 in grants and donations at this meeting.
Next SRC Meeting
Next SRC Action Meeting: January 18, 2018 at 4:30 p.m. in the auditorium of 440 N. Broad Street. It is important to keep a close eye on what is happening in these last months of the SRC’s state-imposed governance. To register to speak, call the Office of Parent, Community, and Family Engagement at 215-400-4180 no later than 4:30 PM on the business day immediately preceding the meeting.