The School Reform Commission plans to vote this afternoon on resolutions to deny renewal of the operating charters for two schools run by Aspira – Olney High and Stetson Middle.
This vote will come two years after the Charter Schools Office first recommended non-renewal for the two schools, which have been operating without charters for lack of an SRC vote. In making the recommendation, the Charter Schools Office cited middling academics, but was most concerned about operational and financial irregularities.
There are still no votes scheduled on the fate of two other charter schools, both operated by Universal Companies, that were recommended for nonrenewal at the same time: Vare Middle and Audenried High.
Sources said that although there are three votes on the five-member board to not renew the Aspira schools, there are not three votes to deny renewals of the Universal schools.
Stetson’s charter expired on June 30, 2015, and Olney’s on June 30, 2016.
Updated reports from Dec. 8, 2017, on Olney and Stetson indicate that since the original nonrenewal recommendation, the financial health of Aspira and the two schools has become more precarious. The reports show that Aspira is struggling to pay off loans and using its per-pupil payments from the state as collateral while heavily increasing the amount assigned to each school's budget for “administrative expenses.”
Administrative costs, described as being for maintenance, security, and information technology, at Olney more than doubled from Fiscal Year 2015 to Fiscal Year 2017 – from $2.7 million in FY 2015, to $4.5 million in FY 2016, to $6.1 million in FY 2017. That is on a budget of about $26 million for 1,800 students.
At Stetson, these costs nearly tripled, from $1.1 million to more than $3 million on a budget of around $11 million for 900 students. And that doesn’t include charter management fees, which were $931,582 in FY 2017 for Olney and $428,476 for Stetson.
Aspira is using the per-pupil revenue it gets from the state and the city for both schools to guarantee more than $15 million in loans to Aspira Community Enterprises Inc. This is mostly for its purchase and maintenance of the former Cardinal Dougherty High School building, which the organization uses to house other charter schools and some community services. Most of these loans are “in forbearance,” meaning payments have been temporarily suspended by the lender, PNC Bank. Aspira is seeking short-term bridge loans so they can resume paying off these loans.
The other schools and organizations at Dougherty pay rent to the parent organization, but these rents “are not based on fair market value nor actual debt service cost,” the report says.
At both schools, academic performance relative to that of the District as a whole and to a group of peer schools has been declining over the last two years, although both are categorized in the new charter office reports as “approaching standard” in that category.
There is also a resolution to revoke the charter of Khepera Charter School in East Tioga, on which the SRC took an initial vote in June. The Charter Schools' Office recommended non-renewal for “academic underperformance” and “evident financial instability.”
Commissioner Christopher McGinley, who pushed for the votes on Olney and Stetson, said that the SRC needs to act on such outstanding matters before handing off governance of the District to a local school board in July.
“There are open issues are out there that need to be resolved before July,” he said. “It is important for those of us supporting local control that we make every effort to clean up things that should have been taken care of. … We don’t want to hand off to the new school board incomplete work.”
The meeting is scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. today. School District spokesman Lee Whack said that 35 speakers are scheduled, many of whom want to speak about the charter schools.