by Lynda Rubin
Third Attempt for String Theory, Significant Community Opposition
Hearings on this year’s new charter applications–High School for Health Sciences Charter and Joan Myers Brown/String Theory–were held on Wednesday, January 22, 2020. PA Charter Law stipulates required procedures and timelines for new charter applications submission and decision. This includes two public hearings and the timeline by which the Board must issue its decision. Although both hearings were open to the public, testimony by supporters and/or opponents could be given only at the first hearing, held on Friday, December 20, 2019 at 4 PM. No public testimony was allowed at the January 22 hearing.
Charter School Application hearings follow guidelines for legal hearings. Hearing Officer Alison Peterson, who had reviewed the application, directed the meeting and asked questions of both parties. A court stenographer recorded all remarks. Charter Schools Office (CSO) Chief Christina Grant, with several members of her staff present, gave a summary of their report, reviewing the main points of each of the applications and whether these were sufficient or not per current education statutes. The CSO review includes: enrollment and admission procedures, curriculum, staff, and suitability of the proposed site. Also examined were background on founding coalition members and proposed members of the school’s board along with any possible personal and/or business conflicts of interest. Peterson questioned both the schools’ representatives and the CSO staff.
APPS members attended both hearings. (Our report on HS2L will be issued separately.)
Joan Meyers Brown Academy/String Theory Schools (JMBA)
Joan Myers Brown Academy/String Theory Schools has submitted, in essence, the same application that the Board denied twice last year for a 900-student K-8 school in Wynnefield. String Theory currently manages two charter schools in Philadelphia, including a Renaissance charter at Edmunds in Northwood and a K-12 with campuses in South Philadelphia and Center City. String Theory CEO Jason Corasanite said in his opening remarks that he hoped “the third time is the charm”.
The full APPS report on the Joan Myers Brown Academy/String Theory Schools’ application can be found at https://appsphilly.net/new-charter-application-from-string-theory-charters-joan-myers-brown-academy/
The CSO examined the relationship between the two entities, Joan Myers Brown Charter School and String Theory management company. Last year’s applications promoted the school as a performing arts school using the name of Joan Myers Brown, founder in 1970 of the preeminent dance troupe PhilaDanco. However, those CSO reviews showed that JMBA did not include any contribution by Ms. Brown except her name, nor did they include a dance curriculum or a plan to hire dance teachers. Peterson asked Corasanite at this hearing whether Ms. Brown will have any role in the school or whether any PhilaDanco teachers would be involved; Corasanite said they would not. Peterson asked whether there is any part of the JMBA curriculum that is not taught at String Theory’s Performing Arts or their Edmunds Renaissance school. Corosanite answered no.
String Theory Schools (STS) has been the subject of news articles detailing Corosanite’s use of previous charter schools granted to STS as a platform from which to build a real estate development business with attorneys at Sand & Saidel, P.C. and with financial consultants Santilli & Thomson, LLC. Santilli & Thompson would act as JMBA’s business controller, using the per-pupil funding for each student to satisfy the bank’s collateral for additional building loans. The complicated legal agreements of the funding partners could leave the District and taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars of debt if the real estate and/or banking market falls (as they did in 2008 crash) leaving STS, Sand & Saidel P.C. and Santilli & Thomson LLC underwater. This was laid out in several articles about String Theory’s real estate/business model, including the 2015 Inquirer article by Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs, Philly Charters Borrow $500 Million of Taxpayers’ Funds.
Corosanite sought to separate String Theory Schools from Joan Myers Brown Academy in this application, asserting that “STS is NOT the applicant”. Actually, the application states: “However, JMBA will engage the services of String Theory Schools whose model is described throughout this application. Pursuant to 24 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 17-1717-A(e)(2)(iv), the String Theory Model model employed by JMBA serves as a unique model for other public schools.”
In addition, as pointed out by both Grant and Peterson, members of JMBA’s proposed Board are also on the Boards of other String Theory Schools. In fact, neither the application itself nor testimony of Corosanite lists the name of any person in the management or administration of JMBA, despite the fact it is slated to open next school year. Corosanite could not identify the name of the person he claims is slated for the Principal’s job, which would begin on July 1, 2020. Please note that no one claiming to represent JMBA without an affiliation to STS appeared at this hearing.
Corosanite appeared flummoxed when Peterson asked him about the newly created “Joan Myers Brown Foundation”; he responded that the Foundation was established in case the JMBA Board ever wanted to engage in fundraising or “to purchase or manage property”. Establishing a foundation with ties to a charter school is one way in which management organizations have created circular real estate deals. These foundations are subject to little public scrutiny and have been used to buy and financially manage newly bought or built real estate, land or properties. They are the conduit to the banks and other lenders. In addition, foundations would not be legally responsible for financial losses due to failure of these real estate deals.
Peterson also asked specific questions about staffing, curricular oversight, applications and equity practices, vendors, start-up costs, health care and pension plans for employees.
As those who attended the first hearing on December 20 observed, Corasanite and String Theory have misrepresented the extent of community support. Wynnefield residents and members of the Wynnefield Civic Association attended that meeting in force to urge the Board to vote to deny the JMBA application. They testified that JMBA failed to contact community members before they filed the application and did not respond to subsequent requests to answer questions about traffic, parking, the effects on both nearby autistic and senior centers, as well as whether the school would have an adequate special education program. Documents include letters from politicians and a Town Watch group. There were also 62 letters from teachers including their home addresses, from the “Founding Teacher Coalition” although the letterhead had no address or telephone for the coalition. 68 more of the identically worded letter, using “Founding Teacher Coalition” at the top listed teachers’ addresses as 1197 Haworth Street, which is the address for Philadelphia Charter School at Edmunds, An additional 25 identically worded letters using using the “Founding Teacher Coalition” cited their addresses as 1600 Vine Street, the address of String Theory Performing Arts School. Charter employees are not unionized and have no workplace protections, so one must question whether STS employees felt coerced to sign these letters of support. These letters may create the appearance of community support for the Charter Appeal Board, but they should not fool the Board of Education.
In November 2019, Corosanite told the Inquirer
that he expects JMBA to be denied again, as this application differs little from last year’s. This application is not for the Board of Education, he said; it’s for his expected appeal to the state’s Charter Appeal Board.
APPS members are again urging the Board to deny the JMBA application. Below is the APPS’ testimony sent to the Board in January.
Submitted by Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools
Joan Myers Brown/String Theory Charter School
3950 Ford Road
Projected cost to District for first 5-year term: $49, 253, 959
String Theory charter management company, despite having been rejected twice by the Philadelphia School Board in 2019, has resubmitted its application for Joan Myers Brown Charter School. The PA Charter Law allows applicants to reapply numerous times. Charter investors have financial resources that allow them to pay lawyers and consultants in this extended process.
2020 JMB/ST application:
The Board rejected the application for several reasons, including the inadequacy of the application. For example, there was no indication of a dance-centered program.
The Board also cited the substandard performance, academically and organizationally, of the Edmunds Renaissance charter school, which String Theory has managed for nine years. (See Deborah Grill’s 2019 APPS report on String Theory’s application which presents a comprehensive analysis of the original application)
String Theory co-founder Jason Corasanite told Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Maddie Hanna in November 2019 that this year’s application differs little from last year’s. He admitted that he expects the Board to reject this application and that String Theory recognizes that there is not much “appetite” for new charters in Philadelphia.
“Our audience is really the Charter Appeals Board,” Corasanite told the Inquirer.
String Theory, in both its application and presentations to the Board, has stressed its commitment to the community. The company has had local politicians write letters of support. But the company admits that it would ignore the wishes of the community if the local school board were to reject them again. String Theory approaches this process with the intention of taking its case to Harrisburg if the decision does not go their way.
In addition, several members of the Wynnefield community came to a public hearing to refute String Theory’s contention that it has community support. In the APPS report on the December 20, 2019 Charter Hearing, Lynda Rubin wrote:
Several articles have been written about String Theory’s real estate/business model, including the 2015 Inquirer article by Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs, Philly Charters Borrow $500 Million of Taxpayers’ Funds. To hear Corosanite’s testimony, both this year and last, it seems that the community wants and needs this new charter school. But several members of the Wynnefield Heights Civic and Community Organization came to tell a different story. They testified that String Theory/JMB officials met with them only after the Association found out about the school. They stated that many of the 600 signatures of support for JMB come from outside the neighborhood. The Association representatives noted that right across the street from the JMB proposed location is a senior center, and a nursing home is nearby. They also testified that String Theory officials never answered their parking and traffic concerns, nor did they respond to questions about the school’s special education program. One Association member noted that she has not been able to enroll her autistic child in any charter school. One of the most damning accusations came from one 19131 resident who went to the JBM/ST website. When she clicked the link to “ENROLL”, looking for more information about the school, she was led instead to a petition for people to sign in favor of the proposed charter school. Thus, she questioned the legitimacy of the signatures that String Theory is now presenting to the Board. She actually took a screen-shot of the page and said that String Theory should delete that page from its website.
For these reasons and more, the Board of Education should reject String Theory’s application.