by Diane Payne
May 9, 2017
This special meeting of the School Reform Commission was announced in a press release sent out Monday April 24. The school district’s official notice was not published in the newspaper until Wednesday April 26. Those who wished to speak had to sign up by Friday. The sole purpose of the meeting was to vote on charter renewals and amendments for 26 schools. The day after giving notice of this meeting, an article appeared in the Notebook giving the public some information on the schools up for renewal. Because of that article, the public did have some information on the performance of these schools.
For the past year, the district has violated the PA Sunshine Act by failing to post or distribute the full resolutions on charter applications, renewals and amendments. The SRC has given no explanation for this change in practice except to designate these actions “quasi-judicial”. APPS has asked for an official explanation of this legal term and why it now applies to all charter matters. The district has not provided this, despite their many promises to be transparent. District Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson has stated at every budget hearing that charters are the single biggest driver of increased district costs. The SRC has a legal obligation to inform the public of all matters, especially those that are diverting so much from funding public schools.
APPS continues to monitor the district’s adherence to the PA Sunshine Act, which was enacted in order to ensure that the public can know what its government is doing and have an opportunity to speak about it. The SRC violates not only the Sunshine Act, but the court-ordered settlement between the SRC and APPS. We are challenging their practice of only announcing the topic before the vote, then publishing a full resolution in a revised Resolution Summary after the meeting. No governmental body is permitted to report false information about its public proceedings.
SRC Position Remains Unfilled
Present for this meeting were Chair Joyce Wilkerson and Commissioners Farah Jimenez, Bill Green and Chris McGinley. The State Senate still has not confirmed Governor Wolf appointee Estelle Richman. State legislators, most recently House Speaker Michael Turzai, are quick to meddle in the school district’s business, making false statements about legal conditions which charters must follow, yet they fail to do their own job of holding a senate confirmation hearing—as well as a failing to fully and fairly fund our district and others across the state.
As he did at the April 27 Action Meeting, Commissioner Green left without explanation shortly after the meeting began, then rejoined via phone just prior to the vote on resolutions. He missed most of the speakers at both meetings. He was absent for almost all of the Charter School Office presentation on the 23 charters up for renewal or amendment on May 1. APPS has called into question the legitimacy of both of these meetings because of the Commission’s failure to follow its own policy (Number 006.1, which states in part:
A Commissioner who attends a meeting through electronic communications shall be considered present only if the Commissioner can hear everything said at the meeting and all those attending the meeting can hear everything said by that Commissioner.
If the SRC Chairperson determines either condition is not occurring, s/he shall terminate the Commissioner’s attendance through electronic communications. A majority of Commissioners shall be physically present at a SRC meeting when a Commissioner attends through electronic communications. To attend a SRC meeting through electronic communications, a Commissioner shall comply with the following:
A .Submit such request to the SRC Chairperson or designee at least three (3) days prior to the meeting.
B .Ensure that the remote location is quiet and free from background noise and interruptions.
C. Participate in the entire SRC meeting [Emphasis added]
Commissioner McGinley was not present on April 27, thus the SRC conducted business for almost three hours without a quorum.
APPS’ Legislative Liaison Lynda Rubin and Co-founder Lisa Haver sent a letter to Commissioner Green questioning his failure to follow SRC policy and calling into question the legality of the meeting. The letter also called for Commissioner Green to resign if he is unable to fulfill his duties. Commissioner Green did not respond. Click here to read the letter to Commissioner Green.
The SRC enforces rules for speakers, even cutting off the mic when some are in the middle of a sentence. In a democracy, rules apply to all, even those in power. But the SRC has never operated as part of any democratic system.
SRC Breaks Its Own Rules
The sole purpose of this meeting was to consider the first step in the renewal process of ten charter schools. The SRC did not explain why only ten of the twenty-three schools were being voted on, but in news reports, district officials said that those who have not yet agreed to conditions were being postponed. Those schools and resolution numbers were: SRC-1 Alliance for Progress Charter School (the only school recommended for renewal without conditions), SRC-2 Laboratory Charter School of Communication and Languages (recommended for non-renewal), SRC-3 Memphis Street Academy (recommended for non-renewal), SRC-4 Multicultural Academy Charter School (recommended for renewal with conditions), SRC-5 Preparatory Charter of Mathematics, Science, Technology and Careers (recommended for renewal with conditions), SRC-6 Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School (recommended for renewal with conditions), SRC-7 Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School (recommended for renewal with conditions), SRC-8 Universal Creighton Charter School (recommended for renewal with conditions), SRC-9 West Oak Lane Charter School (recommended for renewal with conditions), SRC-10 Wissahickon Charter School (recommended for renewal with conditions). There were also two proposed charter school amendments: SRC-11 Russell Byers Charter School (relocation during renovations recommended approved by CSO) and SRC-12 Laboratory Charter School of Communication and Languages Preparatory Charter of Mathematics, Science, Technology and Careers (a request to move locations which was recommended denied by CSO)
To view information about the Charter School Office’s presentation on these renewals and amendments, go to these links:
Thirteen speakers from the charter schools seeking renewals spoke on their respective schools. Although most were CEOs, principals or board members; two parent speakers were in this list instead of in the public comment section with the rest of the parent speakers. This was particularly problematic because the SRC changed the speaker rules at the April 27th meeting to limit public speakers at the May 1 meeting to 24. No explanation was given for this rule change. Thus, two parent speakers were included in the charter school representative portion of the agenda.
Changing the rules to suit SRC whims is not good policy. Policies are in place to afford transparency, understanding, and fairness. In addition, thirteen of the twenty-four allowed public speakers represented just one school – Laboratory Charter School. How is that fair and transparent? This is a clear violation of the SRC speaker policy which states that only six speakers on one topic—three for, three against—can sign up.
Most Charters Renewed Regardless of Performance
At the conclusion of all presentations and speakers, the SRC voted on the resolutions, in most cases to approve charter renewals “with conditions”. When Commissioner McGinley asked whether the district was imposing any conditions other than those required by law, CSO Director Dawn Lynn Kacer answered: No. These “conditions” are simply the areas in which the charter schools are currently not following the law. McGinley then asked: are these schools not funded by tax dollars and required to follow the law? It was heartening to see a SRC Commissioner remind district officials that all schools are required to follow the law.
Of the ten applications for charter school renewal, two received non-renewal recommendations from the Charter School Office: Laboratory Charter School (one of the schools created by Dorothy June Brown, who was indicted for embezzling millions from school coffers) and Memphis Street Academy. The commissioners voted unanimously to follow the CSO recommendation for non-renewal for Laboratory.
The SRC voted to table the resolution for Memphis Academy in order to “gather more information”. What information? APPS reviewed all of the CSO renewal reports; there were no gaps in the Memphis Street report, nor was there any notice that more information was needed. In fact, Kacer stated that “we put Memphis Academy at the bottom” of all Renaissance charters in ELA and Math outcomes.
Various commissioners also advised the parents of Laboratory School, who were in the auditorium, on what they needed to do to overcome this vote to deny. The problems of Laboratory are not new but there is always advice and help for failing charters. Where was the advice and help for Wister – a public school on the chopping block? Where was the second, third and fourth chance for any public school they have closed? Second, third, and fourth chances, as well as solicitous advice, seems reserved for the charter school sector – even when it is not succeeding – but not for our starving public schools.
The remaining renewals were approved, as was SRC-11, which allowed Russell Byers Charter to move while renovations are being completed. Farah Jimenez had to recuse herself on a total of three votes—two because her husband’s law firm represents the charter company, and one because the Philadelphia Education Fund, where she is director, sponsors a program in one of the schools. APPS continues its objections to Jimenez serving on the SRC when she has so many admitted conflicts of interest.
Make Your Voice Heard
City Council has scheduled hearings on the school district budget. On May 10, officials from the district will testify and answer Council questions from 10 AM to 4 PM. Public testimony will be heard on May 17 from 10 AM to Noon. We urge our members and supporters to call the office of Council President Darrell Clarke and ask that another session be scheduled from 3 to 5 PM on the 17th so that district stakeholders can be heard.
Two SRC meetings this month: Thursday May 18 and Thursday May 25, both at 4:30 PM. To register to speak at an SRC meeting you must call the Office of Family and Community Engagement, no later than 4:00 p.m. the day before, at 215-400-4180. Come and make your voice heard.