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ASPIRA teachers must be free to speak out





by Kim Johnson

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As a veteran charter school educator and as the president of the Philadelphia Alliance of Charter School Employees (ACSE), I am appalled at the revelations in Daniel Denvir’s Aug. 29 City Paper article “Charter operator owed its school millions, but no one’s checking its books.”

Apparent fiscal mismanagement and ethical lapses by charter operators undermine well-intentioned charter schools and their hardworking staff. The time has come for all charter teachers and staff to address these issues head-on or run the risk of tarnishing the charter school movement and the dedicated educators who share our commitment to providing high-quality educational opportunities to our children and communities.

The idea that a nonprofit organization would dare to play a shell game with taxpayer dollars that should be going directly to the students of ASPIRA’s five charters is troubling at best. But the idea that the School Reform Commission, which is responsible legally for charter school oversight, has little power to access or audit the financial workings of these organizations is unconscionable. At a time when every one of our city’s schools, District and charter alike, is starved for the funds necessary to provide for our students’ needs, it's unacceptable that an entity is more interested in making profits than in educating children. Pennsylvania taxpayers have a right to expect more transparency in charter fiscal and management dealings, not more loopholes and subterfuge. 

Although the allegations of impropriety involved high-level employees, the teachers and staff at ASPIRA’s Olney High School campus have asked the administration and the board repeatedly to recognize their union and not allow ASPIRA’s management to interfere with this process or intimidate their co-workers. Union representation can provide checks and balances on school operations, while basic due-process rights allow teachers and staff who suspect wrongdoing to speak out without fear of reprisals.

The shenanigans reported in the City Paper article make it clear why ASPIRA’s management has refused to meet with its staff: It wants to keep employees a considerable distance from the financial workings of the school.

The financial games at ASPIRA are why charter employees must be able to form unions, as is their legal right. Employees of all public institutions, and particularly those charged with the academic, social, and civic development of our youth, must be able to speak freely about wrongdoing. These taxpayer funds must be spent directly on educating our students, which must always be our primary goal. Only with that security can we advocate effectively and vigorously for our students.

Kim "Mama Omotayo" Johnson is the president of the Alliance of Charter School Employees and a teacher at Khepera Charter School.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. 

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