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Amid dispute with District, Discovery Charter cuts ribbon to new building

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Discovery Charter School staged a festive ribbon-cutting for its new building in Parkside on Tuesday, declaring in a press release that it had settled a dispute over payments with the School Reform Commission and that its charter had been renewed.

Discovery did agree to repay the School District for students it enrolled beyond what was called for in its signed contract, according to District spokesman Fernando Gallard. However, he said, Discovery officials have yet to sign a new charter agreement.

"We do have an agreement for repayment of $403,391, but we don’t have a signed charter yet," said Gallard. The School Reform Commission has put a moratorium on charter expansion, at least until it gets out from under its $304 million budget shortfall -- which led to the passing of a "doomsday budget" that lays off nearly 3,800 employees and strips its schools of almost everything but a principal and a minimum number of teachers. The SRC is declining to vote on renewals until the charters agree in writing to limit enrollment.

"I think they might have jumped the gun a little bit. I don’t know what to think at this point," Gallard said of Discovery officials declaring that they had been renewed.

The School Reform Commission had threatened to shut down Discovery and Mariana Bracetti charters unless they paid the District back for the students they enrolled above the number allowed in their agreements. Bracetti settled quickly, but Discovery initially held out. It is seeking an expansion of 135 students this year beyond its current enrollment cap, in part to help pay the costs of the new building.

The new building can hold 1,200 students, which is nearly twice the 620 students called for in its charter. Discovery is seeking an expansion of 430 students over the next five years.

The SRC is meeting Wednesday, but so far has no additional charter renewals on its agenda. Several charters besides Discovery want to expand. All told, 21 charters want to add 15,000 seats over five years.

Frank Keel, who handled the press around Discovery's ribbon cutting, referred questions regarding the status of the charter to Discovery founder and CEO Jacquelyn Kelley. Kelley did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

The battle over charter enrollment limits is high stakes. Now, the District sends more than $700 million to charters, which enroll more than 60,000 Philadelphia students. Under the current charter funding system, districts are required to reimburse charters on a per-student basis according to a formula for each student they enrolled the prior year. 

The District says it suffers a net loss of about $7,000 each time a student enrolls in a charter. Officials say they cannot plan financially if charters can expand at will. 

The issue of whether the District can impose enrollment caps on charters has been in court since 2010 in a case involving the Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. So far, the charters have prevailed. The Pennsylvania Department of Education has said that state law requires it to pay the charters and withhold the money from the District when a dispute arises.

The charter law, originally passed in 1997, was amended in 2008. One of the changes said that districts could request and enforce signed contracts from charters agreeing to enrollment caps.

In the first legal break for the District in the protracted dispute, the state Supreme Court, in the Walter Palmer case, recently granted a District appeal to hear arguments on whether the District could enforce an agreement signed before 2008.

Additional reporting by intern Sonia Giebel.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.