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Strong-armed into agreeing to enrollment caps, five charter schools won five-year operating renewals in votes Wednesday night by the School Reform Commission, but five others still have not come to terms with District officials determined to contain costs in the midst of its fiscal crisis.

Funding uncertainties also spurred a decision by Superintendent William Hite to delay the conversion of three low-performing elementary schools — Alcorn, Kenderton and Pastorius — into Renaissance charters under the District’s school turnaround initiative. The SRC had been scheduled to approve assignment of Alcorn to Universal Companies, Kenderton to Scholar Academies and Pastorius to Mastery Charter Schools.

Hite said that the turnovers were tabled “because of the unpredictability of the budget situation” but that the plan would proceed apace “once we have a clearer picture of our revenue and our funding.”

That picture could sharpen soon as the city and state both move toward passing their own budgets by the end of this month.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn also stressed budgetary concerns in the District’s negotiations over charter renewals.

“Due to the extreme financial crisis … we’ve asked everyone to share in the sacrifice, including our colleagues in the charter community,” Kihn said. If all 16 schools seeking charter renewals this spring had won those seats, the costs to the District would have been $25 million in the first year and $220 million over five years, he said.

The schools winning approval to continue operations are Architecture & Design; Hardy Williams Academy; Mathematics, Civics and Sciences; Pan American; and Young Scholars. All signed contracts agreeing to enrollment caps, as did five schools who won renewals last month. Without such mutual agreements, charter schools have expanded unilaterally and contend that state law and legal decisions are on their side. 

Efforts to contain enrollments notwithstanding, the Hardy Williams Academy, operated by Mastery, will add grades and about 250 seats in coming years. The school this past year included grades K-9 and had an enrollment of 816 students, according to data presented at the meeting.

The SRC previously had voted to allow the school to expand through high school, with a 1,170-student enrollment cap, according to Kihn.

Among the schools still in talks over charter renewals is Freire, which is seeking to triple its enrollment, and Discovery, which recently agreed to repay the District more than $400,000 in a dispute over enrolling students above its agreed-upon cap. The SRC had threatened to revoke its charter entirely if the money wasn’t paid back. Discovery on Tuesday held a ribbon-cutting for its brand-new building with a capacity for 1,200 students.

At meeting’s end, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos announced it was being “recessed” rather than adjourned, with plans to meet again at 9 a.m. June 27 to reconsider the bare-bones budget and any developments at the city or state level to boost funding. The District is trying to close a $304 million gap and has laid off more than 3,800 employees.

More than 50 members of the public spoke, many to reiterate their dismay at the layoffs, cuts in school-based programs, and school closures. Several, including parent Adam Vistonto, urged expanding K-5 Bridesburg Elementary to a K-8 school. Otherwise, he said, the school is “at risk of losing its integrity and excellence” because there is “no acceptable option” for Bridesburg graduates at the middle-school level.

Several speakers, including teacher Brynn Keller, questioned why the novel, project-based Workshop School, with plans to expand to 500 students, was moving into the auto-tech building at West High School, rather than into one of the schools now in the process of being shuttered. “We wish the Workshop School the best of luck, but question why our students must pay the price,” Keller said. “There was no community input.”

Hite responded that there’s room for both programs and that the location is a “temporary” solution.

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Connie Langland

Connie Langland is a freelance education writer.