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Turnover plagues District's charter office as state considers changes to law

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The School District's charter schools office, faced with the task of monitoring and managing renewals for more than 80 charter schools, has been without a permanent executive director since the spring, when Doresah Ford-Bey left to take a job in Chicago. 

Meanwhile, the District has been tussling with charter schools over renewals, and the General Assembly has been considering an overhaul of the charter school law. 

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn is overseeing the office while the District conducts a national search. Kihn said that despite the lack of an executive director, he thinks that, with six people, the office is adequately staffed.

"We've seen an increase in the staffing as we work to become a better authorizer and bolster and strengthen systems," Kihn said, noting that when he and Superintendent William Hite came to the District in 2012, the charter office had only three staff members. "We have exactly the staff we need to do the renewals and the monitoring."

"Better authorizing" is a subject of the charter legislation in Harrisburg. Charter organizations are eager to expand authorizing power beyond school districts, which many view as insufficiently helpful, inconsistent in their requirements, or outright hostile. 

The School District of Philadelphia is the busiest charter authorizer in the state, with more than 80 of Pennsylvania's 176 charters located in the city. Philadelphia charters and their umbrella organizations have complained regularly about problems in dealing with the charter office, and many of them have not signed charters due to disputes with the District over enrollment caps or other issues.

Among other changes, the pending Senate bill, SB1085, would allow institutions of higher education to authorize charters, allow charters to consolidate into groups and switch their authorizing power to the state Department of Education, and impose more requirements on charter authorizers.

"If we have a strong authorizer, a fully staffed charter school office, it makes a lot of our problems more bearable," said Lawrence Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Charter School and president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. "It benefits the District, the charter school, and taxpayers."

And, he argued, charter accountability would improve. He noted that all but one of the fraud and misconduct cases connected to charter schools in Pennsylvania -- June Brown, founder of three city charter schools, is on trial in federal court right now -- have occurred in Philadelphia. He blamed that fact, in part, on inadequate oversight.

David Lapp of the Education Law Center said this week, however, that expanding authorizing power outside the districts would be problematic because school districts could not plan financially.

"The level of unpredictability would be rather devastating," he said in a call with reporters.

And the District is opposing the changes.

To allow higher education institutions to authorize charters "would be a runaround of the SRC's power. ... We would have no control," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard. He noted that this is now the case with cyber charters, most of which are underperforming by the state's own standards but are draining resources from the District.

SB1085 would also allow charter organizations that operate more than one school, such as Mastery and KIPP, to consolidate under one board -- now, each school is a separate entity -- and transfer their charters away from the District and to the state. It would also allow "unrelated" schools to consolidate for that purpose.

"The District would not be able to provide proper oversight on the performance of charters, not to mention expansion and everything that comes with that," said Gallard. 

Current charter legislation prevents districts from setting enrollment caps on charters, but the School District has sought mutual agreements with charters on enrollment as a planning tool. However, SB1085 would prevent those mutual agreements, even if both parties are willing.

The issue of enrollment caps is longstanding and has been the subject of lawsuits and acrimony. In August, the School Reform Commission sought to strengthen its hand by suspending the part of the school code relating to charters that prevents districts from setting enrollment caps. Last week, Kihn sent letters to dozens of charters that do not have signed agreements, giving them a Dec. 15 deadline to finalize agreements or face actions including, potentially, non-renewal, suspension, or revocation proceedings.

"Without being able to rely on the certainty of a charter school’s enrollment and other critical terms of a binding, signed charter document, the School District cannot properly plan for the future of public education in Philadelphia," the District's letter stated. "Importantly, because all charter schools in Philadelphia are funded almost entirely from School District funds, your Charter School’s actions place in jeopardy not only School District-run schools, but also the many charter schools that operate in compliance with their signed charter."

Kihn warned the charters that the code suspension means that they can no longer accept students over their enrollment caps and then seek payment directly from the state, which several of them have done. 

The issue of charter caps is now in court, however. The state Department of Education has issued no statement on whether it agrees with Kihn that the code suspension means that charters can no longer get payments directly from PDE for students enrolled above a cap. A PDE spokesman did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

SB1085 also has an explicit "direct pay" provision in which the secretary of education directly pays charter schools when there is a dispute over enrollment.

Currently, when the district declines to pay for students that the charter says it has enrolled, the charter can go to the state for payment and in most cases the charter has been granted the money. 

"Our position has been that there have been a number of invoices charters have put to PDE that we contend have been erroneous," Gallard said. "This will continue to allow charters to go directly to PDE and claim payment even without invoices to be reviewed." Among other problems, he said, this will endanger the District's bond rating, which in part is based on the guarantee that bondholders are first in line for debt payments.

Lapp of ELC said that given the limitations that have plagued the District's charter office -- understaffing, missteps, and a leadership vacuum -- making the case for District-only authorizing is more difficult. "They haven't done a great job, but they've done a decent job with how understaffed they've been," he said.

Ford-Bey resigned in April. She succeeded Thomas Darden, who left in August 2012 after several public missteps. Since Ford-Bey's departure, two other people have been de facto heads of the office, but neither has been the executive director.

Sophie Bryan, who came from City Councilman Bill Green's staff, led the office through most of the summer, but then moved over to work directly with Hite. Jennifer Nagourney, who came to the office as a fellow from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, recently left to head the charter school office in Delaware.

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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.