In April, the Charter Schools Office recommended non-renewal for two schools run by ASPIRA Inc. and two schools operated by Universal Companies. The School Reform Commission postponed any vote on the schools that month and each month since.
After yet another SRC meeting passed in November without any action on the issue, Commissioner Bill Green had a simple explanation: democracy in action.
“It didn’t come up because there weren’t the votes for it,” Green said after the session. “I was on City Council, and some bills sat there for two and a half years until there were enough people to vote it up [or] vote it down. I’m confident that we’ll do that here.”
To critics of the SRC, the long delay reveals evidence that the five-member appointed board can’t hold charters accountable and that it should be shut down.
“It’s a very good example why the public voted overwhelmingly in a referendum last May that it’s time for the SRC to be dissolved and an elected board take its place,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
How exactly the SRC should respond to the stalemate is a matter of opinion.
But one thing is clear: For better or worse, Pennsylvania’s charter law allows authorizers such as the SRC to handle struggling charters however they choose. Whether elected or appointed, no board is obligated to come down hard on poor performers if its members decide it’s better to let them – or help them – work through their problems.
That can put boards in “a difficult situation,” said Robert Fayfich, head of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
“Can you be an umpire and a coach at the same time?” he said. “What’s the line I draw between being an authorizer – being an oversight and policing organization – and being a facilitator, helping them develop when they see shortcomings?”
Pennsylvania charter law offers no guidelines about when to play which part, Fayfich said, leaving boards to consider factors of all sorts: data, finances, intangibles, and inevitably, the interests of the legislators who control the purse strings.
“There’s a lot of politics that go into that determination,” Fayfich said. “That’s true in every district.”
A harsh spotlight
ASPIRA is one of the city’s largest providers, one of three that operate complete K-12 networks (the others are Mastery and Universal). Based in North Philadelphia, it serves about 3,500 students in four brick-and-mortar schools, including Olney High, a 1,700-student neighborhood Renaissance high school. (It also runs a preschool and a cyber charter.)
ASPIRA’s management structure includes a parent company and a separate board for each school. With its growth have come an increasingly complex set of financial deals and a growing chorus of concern.
The first alarm went off in late 2014, when the District’s Charter Schools Office issued a warning: ASPIRA’s overlapping boards, it said, appeared to be improperly shuffling money among themselves.
“We have concerns about … our ability to effectively know what they do with those dollars,”
Lauren Thum of the charter office said at the time.
ASPIRA defended its practices, but a second warning arrived soon afterward and the charter office requested
reforms. When an ASPIRA spokesperson eventually said that all 17 points had been successfully addressed, the District quickly shot down the claim.
“We plainly disagree,” said then-spokesman Fernando Gallard. “There's still a number of issues they need to fully reply to.”
Outside critics dogged ASPIRA as well: The Philadelphia Daily News reported an incident in which a painting contractor was paid $160,000 for work done by school staff. FOX29 uncovered a $350,000 payment to settle a sexual-harassment allegation against CEO Alfredo Calderon. A surprise deficit at Olney High School led to layoffs.
Then, in April, the charter office submitted a detailed case for non-renewal of two ASPIRA school contracts, Stetson, which serves grades 5-8, and Olney. Test scores and graduation rates were sinking. Assets at Stetson and Olney were being used to secure millions of dollars worth of loans to other ASPIRA schools. Board practices were marred by “issues of noncompliance with the Sunshine Act, Bylaws, and statements of financial interest.”
Finally, in May, a report from City Controller Alan Butkovitz detailed a long list of loans and rental agreements among ASPIRA schools, “executed again and again, with no apparent public discussion or approval from school board members,” increasing “the risk of fraud and abuse.”
Throughout, ASPIRA has consistently denied any wrongdoing, while promising to improve.
Faced with all this, the SRC has been unable to muster the votes for action, either to renew ASPIRA’s charters or take them away. Commissioners deadlocked, 2-2, with Farah Jimenez unable to break the tie because her husband’s legal work for charter schools requires her recusal.
So in lieu of action, commissioners gave their blessing to Ken Trujillo, a prominent local attorney, to help ASPIRA solve its problems.
Whatever has happened since then remains unknown to the public. Neither the SRC nor ASPIRA has shared any details.
Asked for an update, ASPIRA said in a statement: “We have provided and will continue to provide information from ASPIRA to the SRC in response to questions raised by the charter office. We look forward to achieving a successful outcome.”
Green, who has said he supports ASPIRA but will consider voting against renewals if its problems remain unresolved, likewise had little to add.
“I haven’t spoken to Ken [Trujillo] in over a month,” Green said. “We have a commissioner [new SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson] that has to get up to speed. I hope we can have some resolution … in December, but I can’t make a prediction.”
No end in sight
He said the long delay isn’t due to a lack of information from the charter office, which does “a great job. I just happen to disagree with them on this one”
Philadelphia’s charter office now does “one of the better jobs,” said Fayfich, but “was not very professional in their oversight except for the last few years.”
New director DawnLynne Kacer arrived in 2015, filling a two-year vacancy, and the staff has grown from six to 11.
Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, praised the office’s “strong, well-documented” reports on Olney and Stetson. Her only question is why the SRC doesn’t vote to implement its non-renewal recommendations.
“Once they give these public schools to charter companies, they will find so many ways not to get them back,” Haver said.
Haver and APPS have called on Mayor Kenney to investigate the possibility of improper behind-the-scenes activity by SRC members and ASPIRA.
But Kenney’s office has declined to get involved, citing a lack of standing, and Green has dismissed any ethical concerns, noting that individual commissioners can meet privately with charter school officials at any time. Public reporting is required only if three or more commissioners take part.
Even if no new information comes to light, the stalemate could soon be broken, as two new commissioners are coming on board. Wilkerson has already started her term, and Gov. Wolf’s nominee, Estelle Richman, awaits state Senate approval.
But if the deadlock remains, ASPIRA could stay in limbo indefinitely – as could Universal, which is in a similar situation, with two flagship schools recommended for non-renewal based on academic and financial concerns and a 2-2 tie preventing action.
Nothing prevents such an impasse from locking up any board – appointed or elected. But Butkovitz has long believed that his office could add a valuable check to balance the SRC’s power. Since 2010 he has unsuccessfully sought expanded charter-auditing authority to better inform the public, encourage better financial practices within charters, and perhaps nudge along such stalled debates.
“I’m not a critic of charter schools. … A lot of them have produced exceptional results,” said Butkovitz.
“But a lot of the charter schools are simply not performing any differently or any better than public schools. There ought to be a way to separate the performers from the non-performers without it all being viewed as bias by both sides.”
Haver and the PFT’s Jordan support the idea of empowering the Controller’s Office, and Fayfich didn’t reject it outright.
“We’re not opposed to full and reasonable checks and balances,” Fayfich said. “It’s taxpayer money, and taxpayers have a right to know where it’s being spent.”
But even if new layers of oversight were added, Fayfich said, Pennsylvania law still leaves it to the SRC to decide whether to intervene and how.
Butkovitz warned that as long as the state’s lean budgets effectively ask the District to run two systems for the price of one, any individual charter-renewal decision can quickly become a proxy battle in the larger war over policy and funding.
“If the SRC tried to take very firm action, there would be efforts in Harrisburg to punish them for it,” Butkovitz said. “Dealing with school issues is one of the most frustrating issues I’ve ever had. It is intractable. The different interests are so dug in and so capable of stopping any kind of change, you can spend many years going around in circles.”