New budget worries lead SRC to delay charter renewal and modification votes
by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
Alarmed by new threats to the financial stability of the District, Chairman Pedro Ramos said Monday that the School Reform Commission will likely delay an expected April 19 vote on 17 charters that have been recommended for renewal, as well as an unspecified number of charter modification requests.
Ramos said that he still expects the SRC to vote Thursday on District staff’s recommendations to not renew the charters of three schools: Arise Academy, Hope, and Truebright Science Academy.
But he said he was looking for a different process to handle the other renewals and suggested that it may require many more SRC meetings to resolve.
“I don’t know yet what the answer is for Thursday,” Ramos said. “The level of unpredictability now is too great to do everything in an all-or-nothing, thumbs-up or thumbs-down" vote.
One option, he said, might be a “rolling” process for considering charter renewals before a state-mandated June 30 deadline. Charters could be asked to negotiate conditions of their renewals in advance of a vote. The goal, said Ramos, would be to bring the highest-performing charters up for a vote first.
“Our priority is quality,” he said.
But at the same time, Ramos stressed, the District’s dire financial straits can’t be ignored.
The biggest financial wild card may be a recent ruling by Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court that the District illegally imposed an enrollment cap on the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. If other charters follow suit and ignore their enrollment caps, the District’s charter school tab could soar uncontrollably.
Ramos attacked the court’s decision, calling it a “big unknown” and saying the SRC may decide to appeal.
“I think it’s a wrongly decided case,” Ramos said. “I think it poses significant risks to the School District. I think it poses significant risks to the charter school movement. The risks are not limited to Philadelphia.”
Ramos added that a recent ruling by the state’s tax equalization board could mean an additional $30 million hit to the District. In addition, Mayor Nutter’s proposal to reassess city property values is being held up in City Council, making a hoped-for infusion of $94 million from the city now seem uncertain.
While the new financial uncertainties have left the SRC hesitant to commit to charter renewals and modifications, Ramos said that voting on the three non-renewal recommendations could move forward because they are the beginning of a longer process. A vote for non-renewal would trigger a formal hearing process that could take months.
Besides these three and 17 charters recommended by staff for renewal, five other charters up for renewal are still under review.
At Monday’s meeting, vocal supporters passionately defended two of the charter schools now facing closure, Hope and Truebright.
Reports outlining the District’s case for closure, along with site visit reports from an outside auditor and some charters’ rebuttals, were posted online Monday – a first for the District.
District staff found fault with the three schools in areas besides their academics. Arise Academy scored unacceptable in three of the four areas covered by the District evaluation: academics, financial health, and governance and compliance.
Two charters – Boys Latin and KIPP West Philadelphia – were judged deficient in one area, but were nonetheless recommended for renewal.
Thomas Darden, District deputy chief for strategic programs outlined the District’s process for reaching its recommendations, which started last August.
“We have reams of data that we have evaluated on each of the schools,” said Darden.
But supporters of the schools recommended for non-renewal were critical of the process, questioning the thoroughness of the site visits and the accuracy of statements in the District’s staff reports.
While the District grapples with its financial uncertainties, some charters are also concerned that delays in the renewal decisions could make it difficult to plan.
Anuj Gupta, the executive director of Mt. Airy USA, told the SRC that his organization is working with Wissahickon Charter School to arrange financing for a new facility.
“If the decision for notification [on Wissahickon’s renewal] is going to be postponed, we need to know that,” Gupta said. “We need to know whether our project is dead.”
Chairman Ramos acknowledged such concerns, but said the SRC is caught between a rock and a hard place.
“I think it’s now unreasonable to expect us to just vote on renewals without knowing in advance … what it means system-wide,” he said.
“We have less room for error because we’re broke.”