By Diane Payne
September 25, 2015
Titles of resolutions for charter renewals of Aspira, Mastery, and Universal schools were posted–but not the resolutions themselves. This is a deliberate move on the part of the SRC to make sure the public does not know what they intend to vote on.
We expected a packed house of charter school families to support their respective schools but found a sparsely filled auditorium instead. It would seem that the charter schools had the inside track on that one – again. (More on this later.)
Dr. Hite was absent due to a death in the family. His Chief of Staff, Naomi Wyatt, sat in for him.
Nine APPS members used their three minutes at the mic to continue to advocate for public schools against the ongoing assault by the SRC and the Hite administration: Karel Kilimnik, Diane Payne, Lisa Haver, Rich Liuzzi, Tonya Bah, Kristin Leubbert, Eileen Duffy, Barbara Dowdall, and Lynda Rubin. APPS members spoke on charter renewals; support for early childhood teachers in light of the SRC’s decision on suspensions; lack of transparency from the SRC; the shuttering of a neighborhood and its reopening as a “contract school”; and the lack of respect for teachers and school professionals shown by certain members of the SRC. (Click here to view or to read the APPS September 15th SRC testimony,)
If not for Lisa Haver’s testimony, there would have been no mention of the disturbing reports on Fox 29 News about the sexual harassment lawsuit against Aspira CEO Alfredo Calderon, which was settled by Aspira Inc. for over $300,000 plus attorney’s fees. The complaint, filed by a former Aspira administrator, alleged that Calderon bragged about “sexual conquests of parents, teachers and students.”
Who’s Out, Who’s In?
It has become increasingly rare to have all five commissioners physically present at their one public monthly meeting. This meeting began with all five members, but one hour into the proceedings, Sylvia Simms left without explanation. Thus, resolutions were voted on by only four commissioners—including the ones Farah Jimenez had to recuse herself from due to her many possible conflicts of interest.
Tax Assessment Appeals: A Good Idea?
Uri Monson, the district’s Chief Financial Officer, gave a presentation on ferreting out commercial real estate properties that are believed to be undervalued and appealing the tax decision on those properties (Resolution A-4). Question: Why will it take the hiring of two firms, Keystone Realty Advisors, LLC and Fellerman & Ciarimboli Law, P.C., for up to $500,000 each, to locate and litigate these properties? This type of arrangement is unprecedented. If the district wants to review any assessments, it can work directly with the City’s Office of Property Assessment. The city collects the taxes for the district, so both parties are on the same side, legally. The city and the school district are working toward the same goal, to increase revenue for the district, so there is no reason for any litigation. Except, of course, to make more money for outside legal firms in the ongoing pay-to-play system that the SRC enables. (See “Big Bucks for Big Lawyers” below.)
Renaissance Charter School Non-renewals: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t
Charter renewal Resolutions SRC-6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12, have all been postponed since April. Resolutions 6, 7 and 8—for Mastery Clymer, Mastery Gratz and Mastery Shoemaker—were withdrawn without explanation just before the meeting began. It is safe to assume that the district is negotiating with Mastery, which has a lot of influence at 440 as it continues to build its own district within the district.
Then came the latest chapter in the continuing disappearing act of Aspira Stetson, Aspira Olney, Universal Audenried and Universal Vare. All of these schools were on the April 28, May 19, and May 26, 2016 resolution lists when they were recommended for non-renewal by the SRC’s own Charter School Office (CSO). The CSO presented over twenty-five reasons—financial, academic, and managerial—for non-renewal for each of the schools. After postponing for three months, the SRC just didn’t post them again until September, only to withdraw them once again. These are all Renaissance Schools. That means they were neighborhood public schools “turned around” for poor performance and handed over to these operators to increase “outcomes” for students. That is obviously not happening! A quick review of the district’s own data on these school shows that they have in no way made these schools better.
In another clear violation of the PA Sunshine Act, Chair Neff stated that the commissioners had met in a “quasi-judicial session” prior to the scheduled public meeting to discuss these resolutions and determined that these resolutions would end in a split vote of “no action” again so it was decided to withdraw them. There is no such thing as a “quasi-judicial session”. Apparently, the SRC discussed the charter resolutions in their executive session rather than in open session where the public would have an opportunity to comment.
Thanks to Haver’s testimony, the question was raised about the allegations of sexual improprieties on the part of Aspira CEO Calderon. She also asked for how long the commissioners can take no action on the charter renewal votes. Neff told her after the meeting that there is no limit to the number of times the vote can be postponed. Neff was not able to answer the question of when the next 5-year period begins—at the end point of the original charter or the point at which a new charter is actually renewed. One more reason why PA Auditor General Eugene De Pasquale has said that Pennsylvania has the worst charter school law in the country.
Will District Close More Schools Next Year?
APPS speakers Karel Kilimnik and Rich Liuzzi, along with parent speaker Tonya Bah, asked the commissioners to identify now the schools that the district might close next year. They referred to the Notebook article in which Dr. Hite stated that the district intends to close three schools per year for at least the next three years. No answer from Hite surrogate Wyatt or from any of the commissioners to this question. Resolution A-3, a $200,000 contract with TBD and Cambridge Education, which identifies itself as a “global consultancy group”, for school “quality review”, was approved at this meeting. Is it possible that this review process will be looking for the schools to identify for closing? When will the SRC release the results of this report?
Big Bucks for Big Lawyers
It is inevitable that a big school district will find itself as plaintiffs or defendants in lawsuits. Not inevitable is the continual funneling of district funds to high-priced lawyers in big-name firms. The district has come under criticism in the community and the media for spending millions on legal fees to prosecute whistle-blowers, cancel union contracts, and protect its own self-interests though secrecy and bullying. Resolution A-18 approves an expenditure of $3,401,232 for FY 2016 and $5,616,041 for FY 2017 for outside law firms. How many school librarians would this buy? This represents more misplaced priorities and the squandering of precious dollars in a never-ending pay-to-play system at 440.
Every School Deserves a School Library Staffed with a Certified School Librarian
Resolution B-5 approved a $52,551 contract with the Free Library of Philadelphia and its “Building Bridges with Books” program. This literacy initiative is a poor substitute for what children in other districts have: a real school library. How does Hite justify having fewer than ten full-time librarians in the entire district? Programs like these should supplement—not supplant—school libraries. Every one of our schools deserves a fully stocked school library staffed with a certified school librarian. This administration is making school libraries extinct, and as a city we should be up in arms about that.
High Quality Pre-K or Money Down The Drain – Who is Monitoring?
Resolution B-6 allows acceptance of a Categorical Grant Fund Amendment for Pre-K expansion – increasing from $51,923,665 to $51,928,465. That is a lot of money. Who doesn’t agree that quality Pre-K is a must and for our children? But the key word is “quality.” Are these many neighborhood centers going to be following developmentally appropriate curricula that contain what our young children really need? Will they be staffed with qualified, fairly-paid professionals? Who will be overseeing these centers? The SRC? Given their record of charter oversight, or lack thereof, that poses a real problem. Renee Queen Jackson, the district’s deputy chief of Early Childhood Education, testified at a 2013 SRC meeting that the district intended to outsource Head Start seats. This outsourcing of Head Start, where children were taught by professional educators, has not gotten the attention it deserved. There have already been many questions raised about this that need to be answered. If not, this may just represent more taxpayer money spent on questionable programs.
The Big Picture: “Contract School” Replaces Public School
Most people still believe that public education is a cornerstone of democracy and serves the “common good” –but apparently not the SRC. In 2013, Roberts Vaux High School (which the district deliberately destabilized by “transforming” from junior high to middle school to high school in less than six years) was one of 24 schools closed by the district. Ignoring the testimony of parents, students and teachers as they pleaded for the survival of their schools and neighborhoods, the SRC callously closed 24 different sets of schoolhouse doors and struck another blow for dictatorship over democracy. This month, the SRC Resolution B-9 established a new school: “Vaux High School – The Big Picture High School”. (Note: Since before 2009 Big Picture has received over $20 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). Big Picture Inc. has had limited involvement in managing schools in Philadelphia, but that is good enough for the SRC. Although this has been in the works for over a year, the SRC did not make any presentation on this new project, nor did they explain what a “contract” school is. Safe bet it will be one without PFT members or any meaningful oversight.