Charter office again comes under fire from SRC for faulty information
by thenotebook on Jul 28 2012 Posted in Latest news
By Benjamin Herold and Katie McCabe
For the second time in as many weeks, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission took issue with key information shared by the District’s Office of Charter Schools, resulting in the temporary withdrawal of a resolution seeking approval for five more years of operation for Belmont Charter School.
A related resolution for a facilities license for the school was also withdrawn. The SRC voted unanimously to renew the charter of nearby Belmont Academy Charter, which serves preschoolers and kindergartners.
Friday’s controversy, however, focused on the fate of Belmont Charter, which serves grades 1-8 and functions as the neighborhood school for students living in the surrounding Mantua neighborhood. It also serves a significant population of homeless students.
During a formal presentation to the SRC, Thomas Darden, the District’s deputy for strategic initiatives, recommended that the commission renew Belmont’s charter, but deny the school’s formal request to add 275 seats over the next five years.
Later, though, Belmont CEO Jennifer Faustman told the commission that as a “neighborhood charter,” the school is projecting to grow by roughly the same numbers of seats over the next five years regardless of whether their formal request for more seats is approved.
Faustman also indicated that Belmont had shared those growth projections with the District’s charter office.
That revelation clearly surprised and troubled Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who chastised Darden for not sharing the key information with the SRC before the scheduled vote.
“[The charter] expects to grow by 275 seats, they have projections to show that, and that’s not part of this presentation at all,” said a peeved Dworetzky.
Each new seat added to an existing charter is projected to cost the cash-strapped District $7,000 per year. After some furious scribbling, Dworetzky said his “rough math” indicated that Belmont Elementary’s planned growth would cost the District between $4 million and $5 million over the next five years – a meaningful hit for a district potentially facing a $1.1 billion cumulative deficit during that time.
“I’m somewhat surprised that there wasn’t a slide up here that said there was a projected enrollment increase,” said Dworetzky, exasperated.
“How do we budget? How do we plan?”
Darden said that Belmont, which has never had an enrollment cap because of its unusual “neighborhood charter” status, was unwilling to agree to one now as part of the renewal process.
“The exposure for the District has always been there,” he said.
Darden also said that his office does not believe that the neighborhood surrounding Belmont will grow rapidly enough to support the school’s enrollment projections.
But a significant portion of Belmont’s student body – about 35 percent – does not live within the school’s catchment. Many of those non-neighborhood students are homeless or transient and receive housing assistance and related services from the nearby People’s Emergency Center.
Faustman, the school’s CEO, said that many of those students elect to stay at Belmont even after their families move out of the neighborhood.
In addition to expressing concern about a possible enrollment increase, the commissioners also debated at length how Belmont’s unusual relationship to its surrounding community, to the People's Emergency Center, and to students who leave the neighborhood should be articulated in any new charter agreement.
“I’m very uncomfortable with voting for something that doesn’t reflect reality,” said Commissioner Feather Houstoun.
Friday’s flare-up between the SRC and the charter office was the second this month.
A week ago, Darden erroneously told the commission that the 5,000-plus new charter seats they have authorized so far this spring would cost the District $38 million over five years –$101 million less than the actual projected cost.
Asked after Friday’s meeting whether he felt the SRC is getting reliable information from the Office of Charter Schools as it makes high-stakes decisions about renewals and revocations, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos responded tersely.
“I think the record of today’s meeting speaks for itself,” he said.
“Before we contemplate options, we need more clear and consistent information.”
The Notebook/NewsWorks reported earlier this week that city leaders have been considering an overhaul of the charter office, which is widely perceived to be understaffed. Significant disagreements about the purpose, structure, and funding for a new office, as well as the ongoing turmoil in the District, have put any such plans on hold, however.
In the meantime, Belmont is one of six charters still awaiting a renewal vote.
The District is still working to complete a financial analysis of one of the schools, World Communications Charter, which was late in submitting its data.
The District is also holding off on making renewal recommendations about Imhotep Institute Charter High School and Philadelphia Electrical and Technology, both of which are among dozens of subjects in an ongoing state investigation of possible cheating on state tests.
Finally, the District is waiting on legal reviews at Planet Abacus and Laboratory Charter, both of which were founded by charter mogul June Brown, whom federal investigators indicted Tuesday in a $6.5 million fraud scheme related to the three charters with which she is associated.