by Diane Payne
February 3, 2018
Ringing in 2018
Only four commissioners were present at this meeting: Chair Joyce Wilkerson and Commissioners Estelle Richman, Christopher McGinley and Farah Jimenez. Absent again, without explanation or apology, was Commissioner Bill Green. It has become increasingly clear that Commissioner Green does not take his responsibility to the public seriously. This is now the sixth time he has been absent since April 2017. He has come in at the tail end of meetings only to vote; he has left meetings early to call in and vote.
Ten APPS members testified on behalf of public education. [To see their testimony and the testimony of other defenders of public education, please go to the APPS website.]
Remarks and Presentations
Superintendent William Hite, in his official remarks, stated that the district has greater stability in job placement. However, the testimony of teacher Robin Lowry painted a different picture for her school. [To see and view Robin’s testimony about the vacancies at Edison H.S., go to the SRC testimony video and click on the 22:45 minute time stamp.]
The one staff presentation concerned changes in the district’s food program. It is heartening to hear that the district is trying different means of increasing participation in the food program, but the issue of the quality of the food remains unaddressed. Children still receive unappetizing pre-packaged items, not the meals many of us remember that were prepared in school kitchens.
Commissioner McGinley, chair of the SRC’s Policy Committee, noted that Resolution SRC-1 was a policy resolution that will be voted on at this meeting and that SRC-2 is on the agenda for public review and comment only. SRC-2 will be considered at the February SRC Action Meeting. The next policy meeting will be [was] at 440 N. Broad Street at 10:00 a.m. on February 1, 2018. Dr. McGinley also noted that the discussion of the charter school policy will continue at that meeting.
Sunshine Act Violation
The SRC continues to thumb its nose at the Sunshine Act and the Commonwealth Court Settlement that resulted from an APPS lawsuit over SRC violations of that law. Part of that court-ordered settlement stipulated that the SRC would post resolutions two weeks prior to all Action Meetings. Almost every month, however, the SRC adds resolutions in the week before the meeting. Charter school resolutions are posted as “quasi-judicial” and lack any text; thus, the public has no information available to them when the SRC votes on them. Subsequent to the meeting (and their vote), they fill in the text of the resolution–which is not what the SRC voted on. That is a falsification of the public record, and it is a violation of the Sunshine Act and of the settlement. We have repeatedly called on Chair Wilkerson and the legal department (now headed by Lynn Rauch) to address these violations. The SRC is a public body. Its members should respect the rule of law.
Charter Sham Continues–on Taxpayers’ Dime
The long awaited renewal resolutions of two of the many Renaissance charters on hold–Universal Vare and Memphis Street Academy–came up for a vote. The Charter School Office recommended non-renewal for Vare in April 2016, but the SRC tabled the vote without explanation. Memphis Street was recommended for non-renewal by the CSO in April 2017; the SRC tabled the vote, saying they wanted to get “more information”, despite the fact that the CSO had completed and presented a full renewal evaluation report. The CSO’s updated reports repeated their non-renewal recommendations, showing that scores declined at both schools.
Memphis Street failed to meet standards in any of the Academic domain and only approached compliance standards in Organizational Compliance and Financial Sustainability in both its original 2017 evaluation and the updated 2018 report. Christine Borelli, CEO of the American Paradigm company, Memphis Street’s Charter Management Organization, earned $204,161 last year. Borelli is not identified anywhere on Memphis Street’s website. The IRS 990 form was signed by Antoinette Powell, who is listed as the principal of the school in some places and the CEO in other places. All very confusing and all on the taxpayer dime.
The CSO recommended non-renewal for Universal Vare in 2016 and 2018 because it failed to meet standards in two of the three evaluation domains. This school was rated below standard in both academic achievement and financial sustainability. In a January 12, 2018 Memorandum, the CSO noted the same status for this school. The Universal company operates a total of seven Renaissance charters in the district. Both Vare and Audenried have been recommended for non-renewal by the CSO because of poor performance in multiple domains. Universal’s founder, music mogul Kenny Gamble, is a well-connected figure both in and out of Philadelphia. Several news stories have documented the financial crises at Universal.
Butkovitz criticizes charter firms Aspira and Universal | Inquirer – May 19, 2016
Feds raid offices, home of Philly nonprofit CEO | Inquirer – November 28, 2017
Universal lobbied former district administrator Greg Thornton, after he became Superintendent in Milwaukee, to import the Universal brand to that district by opening up three schools. Financial failure led to the abrupt closure of those schools last year, leaving the Milwaukee Public School system to pick up the pieces.
Universal Academy to scale back charter presence | journal sentinel – November 15, 2016
Some district information lists Rahim Islam as CEO of Universal Vare. There is no listing of Rahim Islam on Vare’s IRS form 990. Nor are there any salary amounts for the highest paid executives. The public paying for the company’s charters is kept in the dark about the salaries of Universal’s highest paid executives. A November 2017 Philadelphia Inquirer article reported that the offices of Rahim Islam were raided by federal agents and that Islam was placed on leave by Universal. Universal has not seen fit to inform the public of how this might affect the future of the schools in their education empire.
At the SRC meeting, Chair Wilkerson directed the CSO to “negotiate” new agreements with (unnamed) conditions for both Memphis Street and Vare. Although Ms. Wilkerson told the audience that the action “did not constitute a renewal”, the fact is that the schools have been granted a reprieve–with no incentive for improvement. The commissioners voted unanimously to approve Wilkerson’s directive. No formal resolution was read into the record before (or after) the vote, a clear violation of the Sunshine Act. This showed a flagrant disregard of their public responsibility to children, families and taxpayers. To add insult to injury, these charter companies took over these public schools as “Renaissance” schools with the explicit mission of effecting “dramatic change”. It should come as no surprise that charter schools DO NOT have a magic bullet fix for struggling public schools, but what is truly shocking is the SRC’s dereliction of duty.
The next day, the SRC posted full text to the resolutions which read in part:
“…WHEREAS, the purpose of the Renaissance Schools Initiative is to dramatically improve the learning environment in underperforming School District schools to create highly effective schools that provide exceptional opportunities for student academic achievement and preparedness for success in college and the workforce.”
Taxpayer money continues to pour into the coffers of those who profit at the expense of our children and at the expense of public education as an institution. The “cash-strapped” SRC should be putting more resources into neighborhood schools, not into the coffers of American Paradigm and Universal companies.
Selling Off District Buildings
Resolution A-24, the sale of the former Ada Lewis School in East Germantown to Green Star LLC, lacked any information about the company buying the property, the reason for the sale, or the plan for the building. After APPS contacted the SRC requesting more detailed information on this sale, they provided a written response that was available at the SRC meeting. It seems this property will be developed as apartments after sitting empty as a neighborhood eyesore for ten years. Was the community involved in any way in this process? No! Just look to Smith School in Point Breeze and the valiant fight the “Save Smith School” families put forth to illustrate how far community engagement gets families with the SDP. Ori Feibush, the controversial real estate developer, was the winner in that battle, not the community. These are public buildings and vibrant parts of our neighborhoods, but the district has little concern for the needs of the community in these transactions.
And the Block Voting Continues
A total of 38 resolutions appeared on this month’s agenda. The commissioners continued the practice of voting in large blocks, with almost no discussion or deliberation about the large sums of money they spent nor the large sums of money accepted in donations. SRC resolutions 1 through 4 (with the exception of policy resolution SRC-2, which was for review only) garnered a unanimous Yes vote. Resolutions 5 & 6, the de facto charter renewals of Universal Vare Charter and Memphis Street Charter, were both unanimous Yes votes. Resolutions A-1 to A-29 were passed in one block with a unanimous Yes vote, except for Commissioner McGinley’s No vote on Resolution A-11. Resolutions B-1 through B-6 received a unanimous Yes, as did Resolution IU-1. In six votes, the SRC spent $52,707,674 on resolutions they neither discussed nor deliberated on, and they accepted $1,930,000 in donations with the public having no idea of the influence or sway these donations may have on SDP policy and decisions.
On the Horizon
January 31, 2018 was the deadline for submitting written testimony on the nine new charter school applications before the SRC. APPS has been researching, attending hearings and preparing our analyses on these applications. Spoiler alert: more corporate entities looking to feed at the public trough. The SRC has not yet scheduled the February meeting at which it will vote on the applications.
Next SRC meeting: February 15, 2018 at 4:30 in the auditorium at 440 N. Broad Street. To register to speak, you must call the Office of Family and Community Engagement at 215-400-4180 no later than 4:30 on the Wednesday before the meeting.