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[Updated, 9:30 p.m.] After hearing passionate testimony Friday afternoon for two competing proposals to overhaul Creighton Elementary School in the Lower Northeast, the School Reform Commission came down on the side of Universal Companies. They voted 4-0 in favor of the recommendation by School District staff to authorize Universal to submit a proposal to manage the school as a charter starting in the fall.

The commission decided not to pursue an alternative plan for a teacher-led turnaround at the school, though they had earlier tabled the staff recommendation in order to investigate that proposal. Commissioners did express interest in further exploration of the teacher-led approach.

Universal already runs four former District schools that have been converted to charters through the Renaissance Schools initiative, as well as one traditional charter.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky said it was a difficult decision and applauded the teachers' initiative but agreed with Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon's memo from earlier this week that the teacher plan had too many deficiencies.

"The fact that the teachers came forward with their proposal is a great thing, and I admire them," Dworetzky said before casting his vote. But he said the teacher-led plan is not, "at least at this point, something that is in the best interest of the school and the children and parents of the school. That leaves us with the Universal proposal, or the other alternative, which is to do nothing. And I’m really not satisfied with the do-nothing proposal."

Three teachers, two students, and a parent from Creighton spoke fervently in favor of the teacher-led turnaround approach, and three parents and a grandparent were equally vigorous in their support for charter conversion under Universal.

Teacher Regina Feighan-Drach led off the group making a final pitch for teacher-led turnaround and said "time played a key role" in not being able to answer all the concerns raised by the District. She said the charter operators competing to manage Creighton got started in January, whereas she had to craft the teachers' proposal in only four days. Yet, she claimed, "the Universal proposal has the same deficiencies."

Universal was initially the second choice of most of the parents who sat on the School Advisory Council at Creighton. But those who spoke in favor of Universal angrily rejected the assertion of teachers that Universal had wined and dined them to win their support.

"We were totally with the teachers. This is not against them," said Lillian English Hentz, a guardian of a Creighton student, who said she had developed concerns about the teacher proposal and now supported Universal. "I’m a grandmother trying to raise a child. I do not feel at this time that the teachers have the ability to administer as well as teach."

After the vote, the proponents of the teacher-led option left the audience in tears. Teacher Llyn Carter, dean of students and a 23-year veteran who called Creighton "my second home," said she would have to find a job somewhere else next year.

"I can’t stay. I’m too expensive - I’m a senior teacher," she said. Carter added that she has health issues and is concerned that if she worked for Universal she would not be able to maintain the benefits she gets under the teachers' union contract.

Clearing the way for a favorable vote on the staff recommendation, Universal earlier this week concluded an agreement with the District under which they will pay a "license fee" at two of their schools. The fee totaling $500,000 next year is for utilities, maintenance, and facilities services provided by the District at the schools that Universal assumed control of last fall, Audenried High School and Vare Middle School. Universal has been receiving those services from the District for free this year, according to Thomas Darden, who runs the District's charter school office.

Universal had an understanding with the administration of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman that it would not pay a license fee for the two schools, Darden said. Negotiations about a fee started in January.

"The challenge we had in reaching this business deal was to look at what their budget was for this year and the agreement they believed that they had, given the small budgets of these small schools," he said. "Given that we are 11 months into the school year, they had expended that budget."

Darden said the $500,000 fee "does not cover our costs, but we believe it is a fair amount."

The School District had previously acknowledged that it was subsidizing some facilities costs at Audenried and Vare but had not identified exactly which costs. Darden said he was unable to immediately provide a figure for the costs to the District of facilities and maintenance personnel and utilities at the two schools.

In a written statement, Universal applauded the SRC vote on Creighton. “Universal is proud to welcome the parents, students & staff to the Universal Family of Schools," the statement said. "We are excited and look forward to educating the children in a loving, holistic and nurturing environment, which we embody as the Universal Way. In addition, we wait the opportunity to establish a great relationship with the families, staff and neighboring community of the Creighton School.”

In other business, the Commission renewed, by a 3-1 vote, the charter of Eastern University Academy Charter School, a grade 7-12 charter school in East Falls, for a five-year term. Commissioner Dworetzky was the lone vote against renewal. He said that given the school's low score of 8 on the District's school performance index, a one-year renewal would have been "a more prudent course."

Additional reporting by Katie McCabe.

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