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District promises to get tough with new Renaissance charter operators

By by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner on Apr 2, 2013 05:24 PM

The Philadelphia School District is vowing to take a hard line on two issues that have caused confusion when charter operators take over traditional public schools: special education and facilities costs.

Even as the District tries to convert three more of its schools into charters, officials and parents alike are wading through confusion over “exceptions” that past administrations granted to outside managers in previous years of the District’s Renaissance school turnaround initiative.

Take Clymer Elementary in North Philadelphia.

Nearly two years after turning Clymer over to Mastery Charter Schools, the District still has no written agreement for continuing Clymer’s hugely expensive program for students with multiple disabilities.

Mastery plans to maintain the program under the expectation that it will receive a healthy subsidy, part of a “verbal agreement” with the District’s prior administration that current District leaders were not aware of.

In South Philadelphia, meanwhile, the District has yet to reach a long-term deal with charter operator Universal Companies for use of the Audenried High School and Edwin Vare Middle School buildings. After fully subsidizing Universal’s use of the facilities to the tune of $1.8 million in 2011-12, the District is swallowing hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses at the two schools this year.   

District Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn promises a “more stringent” approach this year and in the future.

“There have been, under prior administrations, exceptions made,” Kihn said. 

“That is no longer going to be the case.” 

Kihn said that any charter operator awarded management of a Renaissance school this year would be required to bear the full cost of using any District building. Renaissance operators will also be required to fully maintain any special education programs now in place, no matter how expensive.

“This is not business as usual,” he said.

A good investment, but costly exceptions

The Renaissance initiative began in 2010-11, under the leadership of Arlene Ackerman, then the District’s superintendent.

To date, 17 struggling District schools have been taken over by outside managers as part of the Renaissance effort. As charters, those schools are publicly funded but managed by independent organizations. Unlike regular charter schools, though, Renaissance charters are required to serve the students from geographic attendance zones, like traditional neighborhood public schools.

Early analyses have pointed to sharp increases in test scores at many of the schools. Most Renaissance charters have also increased enrollments while drawing in more families from their immediate communities. 

District officials have stressed that the cost of converting existing District schools to charters – somewhere between $1,000 and $1,500 per student, per year – is far cheaper than creating freestanding charters.

Before the 2011-12 school year, however, the people then running the District granted expensive exceptions to its two largest Renaissance charter operators.

Under Ackerman’s leadership, Universal Companies was given free use of Vare Middle and Audenried High, a brand-new $55 million facility. After the deal was reported by the Notebook and NewsWorks, the District and Universal negotiated a temporary new arrangement. This year, Universal is paying $500,000 combined at Audenried and Vare, less than one-third of the actual facilities costs at the schools. 

That agreement expires at the end of May. Kihn said the District and Universal are now negotiating a long-term agreement.

“We are committed to ensuring that any Renaissance operator pays their full freight in terms of facilities,” he said.  

Universal officials declined to comment.

Before the 2011-12 school year, while Leroy Nunery II was acting superintendent, the District also agreed to allow Mastery to discontinue after one year Clymer’s regional Multiple Disabilities Support (MDS) classrooms, which at the time served 12 students.

Mastery officials argued that the $55,000 per student, per year cost of serving the profoundly needy children, most of whom live outside Clymer’s attendance zone, was prohibitive.   

In 2011-12, Mastery raised over $300,000 in private funds to support the program, but officials said that was unsustainable over the long term. 

The reason: State law treats each charter as its own school district. 

Courtney Collins-Shapiro, Mastery’s chief innovation officer, said a large school district can absorb the cost of something like the MDS program inside an overall budget that covers more than 145,000 students. Mastery, by contrast, has to come up with the money out of the budget for the 443-student Clymer, she said. That would mean between $800 and $900 less per child for each of the regular education students in the school.

“It’s not fair to put that on the back of a little school,” said Collins-Shapiro.

As late as mid-April 2012, the plan still was for the District to take back responsibility for the MDS students at Clymer.

But advocates protested, saying the move would result in a traumatic disruption for some of the city’s most vulnerable students. They also worried that such a move would set a troubling precedent by allowing a charter operator to opt out of serving an entire group of special needs children.

The District and Mastery hastily scrambled to find a way to keep the current students with multiple disabilities at Clymer.

They reached the broad outlines of an agreement, but the details were never formalized in writing.

A June 8, 2012, memo from Thomas Knudsen, then the District’s chief recovery officer, outlined a deal that would require Mastery to serve the children already in Clymer’s MDS classrooms, but allow them to phase the program out over time. In the interim, Mastery would receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual subsidies.

Last week, Kihn, who was not with the District in June, said he thought that was the agreement in place.

But Mastery officials were quick to correct him, saying that the June memo was from “early in the negotiations.”

Both sides now agree that a different verbal agreement was struck later in the summer. Under that agreement, both sides agree, Mastery will continue to operate the MDS program at Clymer for the duration of its charter agreement. 

District officials were unable to provide details of the financial agreement that their predecessors had agreed to. 

Collins-Shapiro said Knudsen had signed off on a subsidy for Mastery of between $18,000 and $27,000 per student in the MDS program, depending on the services each child received. The money, to be paid to Mastery for as long as it maintains the program, is to come through the Philadelphia Intermediate Unit, one of 29 administrative entities in the state that provide specialized services to school districts on a regional basis. In Philadelphia's case, the region and the District are the same.

But no money has yet changed hands, said Collins-Shapiro, because Mastery is still waiting for a written agreement from the District. 

It’s been “tough” dealing with the constant turnover at 440 N. Broad St., she said.

“We’ve had three different sets of folks over the past three years that we’ve been dealing with at a leadership level, and three or four different people [in the Charter Schools Office],” said Collins-Shapiro. 

“There’s something to be said for institutional memory.”

This year’s test

This year, Kenderton Elementary in North Philadelphia has emerged as the most likely flashpoint in the Renaissance conversion process.  

It’s no secret that Mastery hopes to be awarded management of the school, which is a feeder for nearby Mastery-Simon Gratz High.

Kenderton, which has 380 students, has a regional Autistic Support program. Some parents worry that a repeat of the confusion from Clymer could be in store for their children.   

Both Mastery and District officials insist that won’t be the case.

“If Mastery is lucky enough to be chosen by the families [of Kenderton] to operate that school,” said Collins-Shapiro, “we will commit to running the Autistic Support program, without subsidy.”

It costs far less per child to serve students with autism than those with multiple disabilities. 

Kihn of the District said it will be a “requirement of any charter agreement with a Renaissance operator that they maintain the provisions for special needs students within their school.”

In addition, said Kihn, the District is beefing up the performance targets for special education students that Renaissance operators must meet.

“We are not anticipating any exceptions to those rules,” he said.

This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook.

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Comments (11)

Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 2, 2013 8:24 pm
“It’s not fair to put that on the back of a little school,” said Collins-Shapiro. Ms. Collins-Shapiro's statement about the ability to absorb the costs of Clymer's MDS program is ridiculous. The District didn't make the rule about each charter being its own LEA; this is a state regulation. Mastery was NOT FORCED to take over Clymer. Mastery APPLIED to take over Clymer. They knew about the MDS program when applying to take over the school. In doing their due diligence with regard to Clymer, and realizing that they couldn't absorb the costs of the operating this school because of the MDS program, Mastery should have chosen to focus on taking over another school. The situation with Clymer's MDS program highlights how Mastery put their expansion efforts over the well-being of children. Mastery wanted Clymer because it feeds into Gratz, which they also took over in 2011. In both of the scenarios that have been problematic---special education and building expenses---there have been verbal agreements. THE DISTRICT HAS NO BUSINESS OPERATING WITH VERBAL AGREEMENTS!!! The District, under Ackerman, had verbal agreements with Universal about rent. This is a school district, not a personal business deal. It is particularly troubling that the District would allow special education services to take place under a verbal agreement. Other than initiating evaluation or reevaluation, which can take place verbally or in writing, almost nothing in special education is done via verbal agreement. If the IU has not transferred the money to Mastery, what has Mastery been doing to remedy the situation? Has Mastery been insisting that the District write an agreement? Has Mastery communicated to the District that they are waiting for the agreement? Has Mastery made a complaint to PDE about this? And most importantly, Is Mastery serving the children in the MDS program? A teacher at a District school with an MDS program, ANON 452, made comments on "KIPP backs out of deal to buy vacant Philadelphia school" stating that children from Mastery Clymer's MDS program are coming to her/his school because Mastery isn't serving the students. See the comments and story here: She/he may not know about the fact that Mastery hasn't received the money for the MDS program. With regard to Universal, the District should avoid awarding another school to Universal until Universal pays full rent for Audenried and Vare MS. Universal is holding the District hostage by not agreeing to pay for building costs. It's the District's turn to play hard ball now. If Universal is chosen to take over one of the Renaissance schools, the District should not allow Universal to take over the school until agreements are in place for Audenried and Vare. I'm pleased that the current administration plans on holding the line about these issues. However, I will believe it when I see it. Education Grad Student
Submitted by tom-104 on April 2, 2013 10:11 pm
Quote from this article: "But no money has yet changed hands, said Collins-Shapiro, because Mastery is still waiting for a written agreement from the District. It’s been “tough” dealing with the constant turnover at 440 N. Broad St., she said. “We’ve had three different sets of folks over the past three years that we’ve been dealing with at a leadership level, and three or four different people [in the Charter Schools Office],” said Collins-Shapiro. “There’s something to be said for institutional memory.” This is what the Broad Foundation calls "churn". This from a document by Parents Across America in 2011: “Broad and his foundation believe that public schools should be run like a business. One of the tenets of his philosophy is to produce system change by “investing in disruptive force”. Continual reorganizations, firings of staff, and experimentation to create chaos or “churn” is believed to be productive and beneficial, as it weakens the ability of communities to resist change.” Arlene Ackerman was on the Board of the Broad Foundation while she was Superintendent of Philadelphia public schools. For more information see "Who is Eli Broad and why is he trying to destroy public education?"
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 2, 2013 11:56 pm
Tom, With regard to churn, Eli Broad and people at the Broad Foundation may feel that churn is good for organizations. However, churn is not a part of good business practices. I worked for 2 years at an engineering firm. This firm had many senior employees who were experienced in dealing with unique design issues and was well-respected among public agencies, for which the firm did a great deal of work. There was a great deal of institutional memory at the firm. So I would argue that disruptive force is more of a political tactic than a sound business practice. The only reason to promote churn in a business is to reduce labor costs. EGS
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on April 2, 2013 11:36 pm
EGS--Yes, but that's what Tom 104 is saying too. The "churn" is designed to disrupt and destroy cohesion. After the takeover, the churn goes away, far away.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 3, 2013 3:00 pm
I understand, Joe. That's why I said, "So I would argue that disruptive force is more of a political tactic than a sound business practice." The political tactic is to disrupt and destroy cohesion. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2013 9:32 am
Yes. Churn is an important element in weakening the public school system. One aspect of enabling churn is to have a system that allows leaders in public education to shift from the traditional public school to a charter, collect a pension, and also collect a salary from the charter. This is happening in at least some of our charter schools. It drains our system of personnel who hold the "institutional memory". It furthers an imbalance in distribution of income in our society. It is ethically and morally wrong, but is determined by some to be legal. And it is happening before our eyes. What a gravy train! Who will do the investigative reporting to expose this?
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 3, 2013 11:33 am
Unfortunately the personal abuses of the system you cite are what is/has been destroying the traditional public school system all along. Even without the corporations and their churn, who would have had no foothold otherwise. This profiteering, in the eyes of parents/caregivers, makes prospective abuses by private operators, not much worse than what has already happened/is already happening. Those who participate in this new found "gravy train" created by this churn, threaten the existence of the defined benefit/pension for future teachers and principals even more. Justification to move to the 401k plans, already proposed in Harrisburg, becomes that much stronger. They are the ones who are, and have been all along, bringing down the system. If we are serious about preventing corporate takeover, then we should be serious about creating real means to stop mismanagement and corruption in the SDP. So far I have not heard any realistic proposals to address this. Mr. Migliore's suggestion of an elected school board simply won't do the task -look at Camden. There has to be the creation of a real balance of power, police force entity. The PFT has the chance to push for something in the upcoming contract negotiations. Hopefully they will not miss the opportunity.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2013 1:59 pm
The reporting of this abuse is widespread but nothing is being done to stop it. If anything, it is being escalated. I was under the impression that charter schools are public schools. If that is true and after PSERS pays you a pension, you may not work in Public Schools any longer. Any clarity out there?
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2013 1:11 pm
How can any thinking person have faith in the School District after reading an article like this?? The corruption is stunning and it's not about "tightening up." It's about stopping the massive abuse in its tracks and that won't happen since there's so much money to be made for doing nearly nothing of consequence. I don't blame the families for throwing up their hands in disgust at the whole thing. Many have become "immune to the thing." Who can fault them??
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2013 7:03 pm
For the record, a deal between Universal and the district to pay for the use of the two building was only made when they were trying to secure Creighton last year. It was a last minute deal so that it wouldn't look bad that Universal was taking yet another school when it hadn't paid anything for the past two. Criminal!!!!!!!!! "Early analyses have pointed to sharp increases in test scores at many of the schools. Most Renaissance charters have also increased enrollments while drawing in more families from their immediate communities." Ben, please investigate how many students are thrown out of charters due to behavior issues, academic concerns etc. Please don't write that their test scores have increased as if you are comparing them to public schools. If public schools could "counsel out' all the behavior issues, academically challenged and students whose parents are not supportive, the district would have great test results too!
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2013 8:20 pm
Universal's schools in West Philly have been the exception - students are leaving versus staying. Universal fails on every measurement.

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