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By a 4-1 vote of the School Reform Commission, Universal Companies last night came one step closer to winning the charter to run Alcorn Elementary School under the District’s Renaissance turnaround program.

But there’s one big "if."

The granting of the charter is still not official, and Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn emphasized last night that the handover remained contingent on Universal coming to new terms with the District for the use of Audenried High School and Vare Middle School, both in South Philadelphia.

This school year, Universal paid $500,000 total for use of the two facilities -- less than one-third of the actual costs, but more than what the charter operator paid in 2011-12, which was nothing. That was under an agreement with the administration of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

While the District and Universal have wrangled over rent, some parents have continued to lobby against awarding Alcorn to Universal, taking issue with the deliberations of the School Advisory Council (SAC), arguing that either one of the two other charter operators seeking to run Alcorn -- Mastery Charter Schools or Scholar Academies -- would be a better choice. 

Those concerns surfaced again last evening, when Shakia Williams, a member of the Alcorn SAC, submitted a petition with more than 100 signatures urging the SRC to rethink the charter award, which she insisted resulted from a flawed selection process.

In remarks, she urged the SRC to award Alcorn in Grays Ferry to one of the two other finalists. “Giving us to Universal is giving us more of the same,” Williams said.  

But Robin Mathis, also on the Alcorn SAC, advocated for Universal, which she said has “a proven track record in all its Renaissance schools.”

The advisory group’s backing of Universal was “based in evidence, data, and facts,” she said.

District general counsel Michael A. Davis said that an investigation in May had found “no evidence to support allegations of wrongdoing” in the selection of Universal and that there was “no impediment” to naming Universal to run the school.

But SRC member Joseph A. Dworetzky, who was not present but participated in the meeting by phone, questioned why the SRC should move on Alcorn before the fee dispute related to Audenried and Vare was resolved.

“Why not hold off?” Dworetzky asked, because two other charter management companies had sought to operate Alcorn.

SRC member Wendell Prichett, in voting yes, noted that last night’s vote to match Universal with Alcorn was not the final vote on the issue. “We have another chance” to reconsider, he said, when the SRC votes on the actual charter.

Dworetzky voted no, describing the drawn-out negotiations with Universal about fees as “a serious problem that has gone on for a long time.”

“It’s been forever,” he said.

The 4-1 vote prompted jeers from the audience.

A team of Universal staffers left the meeting room immediately afterward. Several acknowledged they were with Universal, but declined to identify themselves or offer comment on the vote.

“Ask the SRC,” said one.

In other action that reflects the ongoing tug-of-war between the District and charter organizations, the SRC also approved leases for three charter schools to use District buildings that are being vacated next year due to school closures -- although two of the schools moving in have yet to have their charters renewed.

Dworetzky also voted no on these arrangements. He argued that it made no sense to him to grant leases when the organizations have yet to agree in writing to the enrollment caps that the District is seeking from all charter operators. The SRC, which adopted a bare-bones spending plan for next year that strips its own schools of nearly everything but a principal and a core of essential teachers, says that it cannot budget effectively if charter schools are allowed to grow at will.

Deputy Superintendent Kihn said that contrary to Dworetzky’s concerns, he thought that the lease would provide an incentive to the charter organizations to reach an agreement.

The resolutions lease the Shaw Middle School building in West Philadelphia to Anthony Hardy Williams Charter, operated by Mastery; the FitzSimons facility in North Philadelphia to KIPP Philadelphia; and the Stephen A. Douglas High School building to Maritime Academy. Williams and KIPP are still in negotiations with the District on their charter renewals.

Additional reporting was provided by Dale Mezzacappa.

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Connie Langland

Connie Langland is a freelance education writer.

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