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The School Reform Commission approved the Renaissance charter agreements for three schools on Friday, officially turning Pastorius over to Mastery Charter Schools, Kenderton to Scholar Academies, and Alcorn to Universal Companies.

At a tense, four-hour meeting, the SRC also accepted $1.1 million in grant money from the Philadelphia School Partnership to expand three high-performing District schools: converting the experimental Sustainability Workshop into the Workshop School; creating a second campus of Science Leadership Academy; and expanding the middle school Hill-Freedman to include high school grades.

But it did so over the persistent objections of Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who did a financial analysis showing that the District will be absorbing considerable extra cost for these schools after this year -- a move he called financially irresponsible given the District's shaky budget picture. Earlier in the meeting, the District had announced that it only had enough funding to rehire a few hundred of the 3,800 staff laid off this summer.

While praising all three educational models, Dworetzky said that the additional cost to the District to maintain these schools and their unique programs will eventually be nearly $8 million a year, averaging out to almost $5,000 per student. This is in a district where current per-student instructional cost ranges from about $6,000 to $8,000, depending on the school, according to Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski.

In making his objections, Dworetzky raised sensitive questions about equity within the District in this time of austerity.

“You've got to keep track of where the money's coming from, and this money is coming from everybody else!” Dworetzky said. “It’s not like it’s just coming out of the air. It has to come from the other students.”

Dworetzky was the only one of the five commissioners to vote against accepting the money from PSP for the three schools.

The entire meeting, attended by about 50 people, was a painful exercise as SRC members faced pointed, difficult questions from members of the public about whether they feel they are fulfilling their responsibilities to assure a "thorough and efficient" education for all students. Commissioners engaged in unusually frank public debate among themselves over how to improve schools and assure equity when they are constantly scrambling for resources.

"I have no problem with these three schools, what they offer, but we have to look at the actual dollars," Dworetzky said. "If they cost $5,000 or $6,000 or $8,000 more per student, for me that's beyond the point of equity."

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett took a different approach in voting for the expansions. "These are exciting, exactly what we should be doing for all our kids," he said in voting yes. "I'm excited to support these three programs."

The three programs will add about 230 students this year, but that number will eventually grow to more than 1,600 as the schools add grades and fill out. But the Commonwealth's method for sending dollars to school districts is not based on enrollment, so the District can't count on additional money for those additional students.

The commissioners declined to respond to the concern that they were allowing outside organizations to dictate which schools to expand and invest in.

"It's not OK to let private donors dictate public priorities," said parent activist Helen Gym in public testimony to the commission.

Renaissance vote

Dworetzky also opposed the resolutions authorizing the three charter conversions. His objections there were similar – that each Renaissance School conversion ultimately costs the District money, although less than if a new charter were started from scratch.

Superintendent William Hite said that in the case of the Renaissance schools, he had secured funding that would eliminate the cost to the District in the first year.

In June, the SRC put on hold a resolution to approve the Renaissance conversions at Alcorn, Pastorius and Kenderton -- which presented a problem because the three schools were in limbo and were running out of time to plan for their fall opening.

Since then, apparently, District officials and proponents of the Renaissance initiative came up with nearly $4 million in state support and  philanthropic commitments  to subsidize the first-year cost. The state support is in the form of a $3 million federal School Improvement Grant that will be passed through to the District, earmarked for turnaround. Hite said that the District was counting on getting that money, even though those grants are competitive.

The charter organizations also apparently secured private funding to cover some of their operating costs and have agreed that the District's payments to them would be reduced in the first year by nearly $1 million. The philanthropic contribution was estimated by the District as nearly $950,000. Hite said that the three providers were "raising money on their own to reduce the cost to the District" in the first year.

But in the four succeeding years, according to a document requested by Dworetzky and released at the meeting, the "marginal cost" to the District for operating the three schools as charters instead of keeping them in the District is estimated to grow from $5.3 million to $7.5 million annually.

"In four years on the SRC, I have been more than willing to see some additional funding go to Renaissance charters where they are doing a good job," Dworetzky said, praising Mastery and Scholar Academies in particular. But again, the additional costs raise the question of equitable distribution of resources, he said.

In Universal’s case, Dworetzky had another problem: the nearly two-year-old standoff with the organization over paying for use of the Audenried and Vare buildings, where it already runs Renaissance programs. For most of that time, Universal has not paid anything, citing a handshake agreement during the tenure of former SRC chairman Robert Archie and former superintendent Arlene Ackerman that it could use the buildings at no cost.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said that the District had finally worked out an agreement where Universal would pay the full cost in Audenried and all but utility costs at Vare. But then a glitch arose – the charter office received information that at Vare, Universal had been running a kindergarten class from its other charter school without authorization.

An official from Universal, Shaheed Dawan, was in the room and acknowledged that Universal had installed the kindergarten class, part of its independent Universal Institute Charter School, without informing the District. The back-and-forth did not resolve the issue but didn't cause any other commissioner but Dworetzky to vote against the turnover.

Pritchett was not entirely happy with the situation but said he would vote for the Alcorn conversion.

"I have worked with the parents at Alcorn for the past year, and there is gigantic frustration that we have been failing those kids for a long time," he said. "We have to stop failing those kids."

The District also has not settled an ongoing disagreement with Mastery over the costs of severely disabled students now located at Clymer Elementary, one of their current Renaissance turnaround schools, according to officials. That issue is nearing resolution, said Sophie Bryant, an aide to Hite who has been working with charter operators.

Promise Academy model discussed

Hite said that the District would invest more than $7 million additional this year in 12 Promise Academies, its internal turnaround initiative, six existing schools and six new ones. However, the commissioners and Hite acknowledged that the turnaround model, which primarily depended on extending learning time and doubling down on remediation, needs to be rethought.

"We need a rigorous discussion of the Promise model," said SRC Chair Pedro Ramos. "We inherited the model that was here. Now we have new academic leadership ... and all models [should be] put on the table."

Commissioners complained that they needed more information about what the model is and how the money would be spent. The District closed three Promise Academy high schools -- Germantown, University City, and Vaux -- but is planning to open six more, mostly elementary schools. 

Pritchett added that "one of the challenges of the District turnaround model is that we have tried different things, and that's a good thing. But we wouldn't want to continue to fund any aspect of the turnaround that we know ... wasn't working." He mentioned Saturday morning classes and activities, which were poorly attended.

Commissioners maintained a tense silence when asked directly by several speakers why they haven't been more outspoken -- or even why they didn't resign in protest -- over a financial rescue package from Harrisburg that fell far short of what they requested and primarily relies on city rather than state revenue.

And they also declined to answer questions about whether they agree -- or indeed, had asked for -- the legislature's decision to demand changes in the teachers' contract before releasing most of the additional funds for this year being made available, including a one-time $45 million payment and the opportunity to take out a $50 million loan against future sales tax revenue.

"The state is saying, yes, we have the money, but no, we're not giving it to you. We want to know if that is the official position of the SRC," asked retired teacher Lisa Haver in public testimony. The commissioners did not answer.

Holly Otterbein of NewsWorks contributed reporting to this story.

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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.

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