In ten years as a Universal Renaissance charter, Vare Middle School has met only one of out of six major categories. Universal Vare has never met Academic or Financial standards. Yet the CSO has recommended another 5-year renewal.
2011: SRC votes to give control of Vare to Universal Companies in 2011
2015: CSO recommends non-renewal, citing academic data, in-person visits, state and federal records, and financial audits, CSO reported that Vare failed to meet Academic, Financial or Organizational areas
2016: SRC tables non-renewal resolution indefinitely
2019: In an unusual move, SRC at its January action meeting passes a resolution directing CSO to “negotiate” terms of renewal: “… the SRC hereby directs the Charter Schools Office to negotiate with Universal Vare over the terms and conditions for a possible renewal of the Charter, which terms and conditions shall be memorialized in a School District standard form charter agreement for the five-year period commencing on July 1, 2016 and ending on June 30, 2021; provided, however, that the SRC or a Board of Education of the School District shall not take action on Universal Vare’s Application for Charter Renewal until the terms and conditions for a possible renewal of the Charter have been fully negotiated and Universal Vare has signed a charter agreement in a form acceptable to the Charter Schools Office…”
2018: SRC votes for 5-year renewal with voluntary surrender clause at June action meeting
2020: Board does not publicly evaluate compliance with conditions in surrender clause
2021: CSO recommends 5-year renewal with conditions, drops surrender clause. The CSO addendum shows that Vare failed to meet almost half of the conditions they agreed to in the 2018 surrender clause.
Vare Middle School at 2011 S. 24th Street in Southwest Philadelphia was taken over by Universal Companies in 2011 as part of the District’s Renaissance initiative. Universal promised to “effect dramatic change” as part of its Renaissance charter agreement. District data, in-person observations, and state and federal reports over the past ten years show that Universal has failed to keep that promise. Universal acknowledged its low performance in its 2019 renewal agreement with the District. The 2015 CSO renewal evaluation showed that Vare failed to meet standards in all categories. The 2021 has Vare failing to meet standards in both Academic and Financial categories. The CSO determined that Vare meets organizational standards even though Vare, like several other Universal schools, violates background check laws. Vare has had four School Leaders over the past five years.
Academics show that Vare’s proficiency rates have been lower than District schools in all tested subjects–Reading, Math, and Science–for all years. Vare’s attendance data shows chronic absenteeism in all years. Vare’s attendance rates have been lower than District schools in all measured years. Although a Renaissance charter school, Vare enrolled a significant number of students outside of its catchment area every year. The most recent District school profile shows that only 28% of Vare’s enrollment resides in its catchment area. In addition, the evaluation gives no explanation for why Vare’s enrollment declined almost by half, from 392 students to 227 in four years.
Although Vare rated a “Meets Standards” in Organization, Universal has failed to produce background checks for several employees over the years. The CSO reports: “Although the 10 employee files reviewed were found to have active background checks, multiple employees were found to have expired background checks during the charter term. Specifically, 3 of 10 employees did not have evidence of active FBI background checks for the duration of the charter term. 1 of 10 employees did not have evidence of active PA Child Abuse Clearances throughout the charter term. 1 of 10 employees did not have evidence of active PA Criminal Background checks throughout the charter term. 2 of 10 employee files reviewed found that Act 168 Documentation was not completed until at least two (2) years after their initial hire date.”
Vare’s teacher retention plummeted from 75% to 38% in just one year, 2016-17 to 2017-18. In that same year, student enrollment declined significantly. The CSO evaluation provides explanations for none of this.
Vare has failed to meet financial standards since the Universal takeover ten years ago. The CSO cites problems with the school’s debt ratio and cash on hand. Questionable practices noted include having official checks signed by the former CFO who had been relieved of his duties. In reference to Universal’s questionable financial transactions, the CSO evaluation states: “In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020, in-kind revenues of $139,714 were received from Universal Education Companies, Inc. and in-kind revenues of $83,828 were received from Universal Community Homes, related parties, in lieu of payment for management fees. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, in-kind revenues of $610,000 were received from Universal Education Companies, Inc., in-kind revenues of $165,000 were received from Universal Community Homes, in lieu of payment for management fees, and in-kind revenues of $96,053 were received from Universal Daroff Charter School related parties. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, in-kind revenues of $290,332 were received from Universal Education Companies, Inc. a related party, in lieu of payment for management fees.” [bold added]
The projected cost to the District to operate Vare for the next five years is $15, 648, 352. The academic, financial, and organizational performance over the past ten years shows that Universal has failed to improve Vare Middle School. Universal’s questionable financial and organizational practices, along with its low academic performance, provide more than enough reasons for the Board to vote not to renew Universal’s contract and to restore Vare to community control.