by Diane Payne
March 1, 2018
All five commissioners were present for this special meeting of the SRC, held for the purpose of voting on the seven remaining applications for new charter schools: SRC-1 Antonia Pantoja Preparatory Charter School, SRC-2 APM Community Charter School, SRC-3 Eugenio Maria de Hostos Preparatory Charter School, SRC-4 Franklin Towne Charter Middle School, SRC-5 MaST Community Charter School III, SRC-6 Mastery Charter Elementary School, and SRC-7 Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School. Five members of APPS testified against the approval of any new charter school. Four other community members and teachers spoke against approval of any of the applications. (You can see all of these testimonies at APPSPhilly.net )
SRC Votes to Change Policy (After Enactment)
Without any explanation, the SRC limited the number of public speakers for this meeting to fourteen. Seven additional slots were reserved for the charter applicants, who spoke first. In Policy 903, Public Participation at Committee Meetings, no language appears limiting the number of public speakers. This is not the first time the SRC has changed the policy for just one meeting. Last year, they violated their own policy by limiting speakers without voting on the change. This year, they changed the policy before voting on it.
In addition, the SRC changed the order of the agenda and moved the staff presentation on these applications after the public speakers. In all other SRC meetings, the staff presentations come before the public speakers giving speakers some important information prior to their turn at the mic. Again, no explanation.
APPS Again Calls on SRC to Stop Hiding Behind “Quasi-Judicial”
Two years ago, without explanation, the SRC abruptly changed the way it handled charter school topics and began to label all actions on charter schools (new applications, renewals, etc.) as “quasi-judicial”. This label then allowed the SRC to give only the resolution number and name without any accompanying text. The PA Sunshine Act stipulates that a governmental body must tell the public exactly what it is voting on. After the meeting and the vote, the full text is published online. That constitutes a falsification of the public record, as it implies that the commissioners voted on the resolution as written in the minutes. APPS has repeatedly requested that the SRC stop this illegal practice and provide the full text of the resolution at the meeting. Resolutions SRC-1 through 7 were represented as names only with no accompanying text and then voted on by the Commissioners.
APPS members reviewed the applications of all seven charter applicants, attended the charter hearings, and researched the applicants backgrounds, financial practices and connections. One of the things we discovered: you have to be a financial and/or real estate expert to understand the connections and relationships between charter schools, their management companies and their boards. It is not easy for lay people to decipher the business relationships between these entities. APPS contends that if this is taxpayer money it should not be difficult to understand how our money is spent. Another shocking discovery was the bloated salaries that CEOs and administrators at many of these companies pay themselves. Not surprising to those who have followed the rise of charters is the fact that there is nothing illegal about this misuse of taxpayer dollars. [Read the APPS analyses of the charter applications at our website: APPSPhilly.net. ]
Charter School Office Reports
The Charter Schools Office (CSO), headed by Director DawnLynne Kacer, used teams of both CSO staff and outside experts in the analyses and reports on each of the seven applicants. The work of the CSO was professional and thorough. The CSO no longer makes recommendations for new applicants but lists the strengths and concerns in each application. The CSO reports on every one of the seven applications had significant and numerous concerns. To be kind, not one of the applications could be declared “stellar.” Yet the district is being forced to spend taxpayer money to organizations that fall far short of the task of educating the city’s children. Remember that two years ago Harrisburg Republicans tacked on a last-minute provision to the cigarette tax bill that the SRC must consider new charter applications every year. This is a waste of time and money.
Six Denied, One Approved
Six of the seven applications were denied. The SRC voted unanimously to deny Antonia Pantoja and Eugenio Maria de Hostos. Votes to deny Franklin Towne, APM, Philadelphia Hebrew, and Mastery were 3-2, with Green and Jimenez voting to approve. After a brief recess, the SRC voted unanimously to approve MaST III with conditions, despite several concerns raised in the Charter School Office report.
It is difficult to understand why MaST, whose application initially sought to recruit 2,600 students from all over the city, was approved. MaST boasts of its high test scores, but fails to mention the low minority and low poverty percentages of their student body. MaST also receives a lot of private funding, including grants from the Philadelphia School Partnership. They proudly stated that parents were prepared to allow their children to travel for one and half to two and half hours to get to the school, but as Commissioner McGinley noted, this is not something to be proud of. And finally, MaST is purchasing the old Crown and Cork property on Roosevelt Boulevard near Woodhaven Road. This property is prime real estate and includes 40 acres! Is this a school deal or a real estate deal?
The commissioners took a short recess to confer with legal counsel about MaST. While the other four commissioners spoke at the table, Green made a beeline to the MaST CEO and had an obviously friendly meeting in full view of everyone. An SRC staff person had to come over and tell Green that the others were waiting for him. If not illegal, it was certainly improper. It sent a clear message to charter supporters: Green’s your guy on the SRC.
After the commissioners returned, there was a motion to accept the application with the CSO’s suggested conditions including: documentation requirements, reducing the maximum number of seats to 1,300, and reserving 50% of the seats for zip codes 19120, 19124, 19140, and 19141, covering Olney, Logan, Hunting Park and a section of North Philadelphia. (Part of the pre-recess discussion was about why MaST planned to recruit from Southwest Philadelphia.) In addition, Commissioner McGinley asked if a condition could be included for the charter school to provide transportation for kindergarten students. (The SDP provides yellow bus service to elementary age children and SEPTA passes for middle and high school students but does not provide any transportation for kindergarten students.)
This now opens the door to possible legal challenges about one select group of kindergarten students being given a perk that no other kindergarten student in the city is entitled to receive.
Once again, Commissioner Green reached out to the charter applicants, reminding them that they can reapply if denied, as he did with Deep Roots charter last year. He encouraged the Philadelphia Hebrew Charter School to work on the areas of concern noted by the CSO and resubmit their application. It seems not to matter to Commissioner Green that the children who attend public schools are harmed when district funds must be diverted to charter schools. He and Commissioner Jimenez have consistently voted the privatization/outsourcing agenda.
APPS will continue to research, analyze, and report on what is happening in the chartersphere. SDP Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson has testified in every budget hearing that the charter school expense is the single biggest drain on the SDP budget. The report recently issued by the Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) is just the most recent study which shows that district schools outperform charters in most areas. When charter schools do fare better, looking closely at demographics and practices often find a gaming of the system that is not scalable. Cozy and questionable real estate and management company deals are rampant. Bloated salaries are the norm. Pennsylvania has one of the worst charter school laws in the country. But as long as the taxpayer gravy train is available, children will be the pawns in a fight over what public education should look like.