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Charter head calls state Supreme Court decision against his school 'political'

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    Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY




The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in favor of the School Reform Commission in a case involving student enrollment caps at a Philadelphia charter school.

In a unanimous decision overturning a lower court ruling, the state's high court said that the Philadelphia School District and the SRC were within their legal rights to cap enrollment at Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School based on a mutually signed agreement.

In 2005, Palmer agreed to abide by a cap of 675 students, but a Commonwealth Court later ruled that Palmer should be paid $1.3 million from the District for students in excess of the cap. In its 2005 charter-renewal application, the Palmer school asked to increase its cap. The SRC denied its request, citing poor academic performance on state standardized tests.

Palmer argued that, although the school had signed a five-year charter in 2005, the SRC had unilaterally imposed the cap.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected that argument. "The SRC and the charter school then entered into, as of September 1, 2005, a legally binding agreement," wrote Justice Seamus McCaffery in the opinion.

School founder Walter Palmer characterized the outcome as a "patently wrong" decision based more on politics than legality.

"One of the things I always said and shared with people is, if in fact the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would make a decision based on the law ... we'd prevail," he said. "If they made a decision based on politics, we would not."

Palmer said he had no specific information to back up his allegations, but broadly characterized Philadelphia as a "political" and "incestuous" city.

Palmer's K-12 school now serves almost 1,300 students on campuses in Northern Liberties and Frankford.

For the 2007-08 school year, Palmer's average daily enrollment was about 729 students. For the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, the average daily enrollment was approximately 732 and 765 students, respectively.

In these years, the District paid the charter for only 675 students. Palmer appealed to the state Department of Education in 2010.

Based on the 2008 state law that bars districts from unilaterally capping charter enrollment, the department agreed that Palmer was underpaid for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years.

The department then diverted $1.3 million from the District's share of state funds directly to the school.

The School District appealed the decision in 2012, but the Commonwealth Court affirmed the Department of Education's rationale.

In Tuesday's opinion, the Supreme Court said the Commonwealth Court and the department "imposed a requirement that has no basis in the statute."

Nothing in the language of the law supports the view, the court said, that agreed-to caps become invalid based on the 2008 changes to the charter law.

The court said the terms of Palmer's charter make it "unmistakably clear" that the District was within its rights to withhold payment for students enrolled beyond the cap.

"The charter school's arguments to the contrary lack merit," the decision read. "The charter school's contention that the enrollment cap was somehow unilaterally imposed without its consent, acquiescence, or agreement is belied by the straightforward text of the 2005 charter, a 'legally binding agreement' signed by the charter school."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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Kevin McCorry

Kevin is WHYY/NewsWorks' senior education writer.