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Down to the wire on charter talks

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With their schools' mandates to operate running out in just a matter of days, leaders of 10 charters are deep into negotiations with District officials who are determined, at least for now, to defer plans by the schools to expand.

Citing the budget crisis, Superintendent William Hite last month announced he would not recommend any charter expansions in the coming year -- a setback to the publicized ambitions of 21 charter schools to add more than 15,000 students over the next five years. Such expansion would cost the District $500 million.

The charters of 16 schools were set to expire at the end of June, giving the District some leverage. Although state law bans the District from unilaterally imposing enrollment caps, it allows for joint agreement on the issue. So far, five charter schools have agreed to such caps, and their charters were renewed for five years in April. They are Antonia Pantoja, Christopher Columbus, Eugenio de Hostos, Maritime Academy, and Universal Institute charter schools.

One school’s future is in jeopardy. The School Reform Commission voted in May to begin non-renewal proceedings against Imani Education Circle in Germantown over concerns related to student academic achievement and finances.

And there’s a fierce dispute involving Discovery Charter’s bid for renewal. Earlier this spring, District officials recommended that the school be shut down for exceeding its enrollment cap by 73 students and successfully petitioning the state for more than $400,000 to pay for them. The state then docked that amount from the District, which wants its money back as a condition for charter renewal. Mariana Bracetti Academy, faced with a similar non-renewal threat after over-enrolling by 96 students, repaid $435,000 in April.

Generally, charter renewal talks appear focused on the enrollment cap issue.

Larry Sperling, CEO of Philadelphia Academy Charter School in the Northeast, said that Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn “reiterated” the District’s intent not to add charter seats.

“There are no hard feelings here,” said Sperling. “I did not get the feeling they were going to budge.”

Even so, Sperling said, he made his pitch. The school, with two campuses and total enrollment of about 1,200, is seeking to expand its high school by several hundred students to enhance the feasibility of offering more advanced courses. “If I had 800 students, that would be perfect,” Sperling said. His school, he said, would like to partner with the District to address what he described as overcrowded District schools in the Northeast.

For the KIPP North campus, the issue is winning permission to complete expansion of its elementary and a high school programs to offer a full K-12 program. Currently, there’s a 5-8 middle school but no 3rd or 4th grade at the elementary school and no 12th grade at the high school. The SRC has approved only grade-by-grade expansions the last three years.

“We’ve had positive conversations,” said CEO Marc Mannella. “We remain optimistic that the District and the SRC will fulfill the commitment that it made in 2010 and will come through for our kids and our families.”

Charter operators are aware of the District’s straits, said Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

“As a community we have shown a willingness to be a partner going forward,” said Jones. “We understand the financial realities and we look forward to a time when the financial outlook of the District will improve and our charter schools can be a viable choice for more families.”

Attempts were made to reach the heads of all the charter schools seeking renewals, but most, including Discovery CEO Jacquelyn Kelley, did not respond.  There was no response from a District spokesman after several requests for comment.

Management of Mastery Schools, which operates Hardy Williams Academy Charter School, declined comment. The sticking point would appear to be plans to expand from 1,000 to more than 1,500 students in grades K-9 at that site.

Kelly Davenport, CEO of Freire Charter School in Center City, kept her remarks brief. “We look forward to what we hope will be a partnership with the District for the good of our students and our families,” said Davenport. With 1,000 students, Freire previously announced plans to add 3,000 seats over five years.

The District and the charter community have been embroiled for years in a legal dispute over the right to enforce caps on charter schools, even if the charter had agreed to them in writing.

So far, the Pennsylvania Department of Education and state courts have consistently sided with the charter community around enrollment caps, particularly in a case involving the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter. Palmer filed suit on the issue in 2010 when the District sought to impose an enrollment cap, and the case has been ongoing since then. At issue is some $5.5 million paid by the District to the charter.

But last week the state Supreme Court said it would hear arguments on a key point of dispute: whether the District could enforce a cap that was part of a charter agreement signed before 2008. A 2008 revision of the state charter school law included a phrase that said caps were not enforceable unless agreed to in writing by both sides when a charter is authorized. That is the basis for the District's current insistence on written agreements that include enrollment caps from charters up for renewal.

The next scheduled action meeting of the School Reform Commission is June 19. This year marks the first time charters have been asked to sign a renewal agreement before the SRC votes on that renewal.

Additional reporting by Dale Mezzacappa.

 

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Connie Langland

Connie Langland is a freelance education writer.

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