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Amid dispute with District, Discovery Charter cuts ribbon to new building

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 18, 2013 05:47 PM

Discovery Charter School staged a festive ribbon-cutting for its new building in Parkside on Tuesday, declaring in a press release that it had settled a dispute over payments with the School Reform Commission and that its charter had been renewed.

Discovery did agree to repay the School District for students it enrolled beyond what was called for in its signed contract, according to District spokesman Fernando Gallard. However, he said, Discovery officials have yet to sign a new charter agreement.

"We do have an agreement for repayment of $403,391, but we don’t have a signed charter yet," said Gallard. The School Reform Commission has put a moratorium on charter expansion, at least until it gets out from under its $304 million budget shortfall -- which led to the passing of a "doomsday budget" that lays off nearly 3,800 employees and strips its schools of almost everything but a principal and a minimum number of teachers. The SRC is declining to vote on renewals until the charters agree in writing to limit enrollment.

"I think they might have jumped the gun a little bit. I don’t know what to think at this point," Gallard said of Discovery officials declaring that they had been renewed.

The School Reform Commission had threatened to shut down Discovery and Mariana Bracetti charters unless they paid the District back for the students they enrolled above the number allowed in their agreements. Bracetti settled quickly, but Discovery initially held out. It is seeking an expansion of 135 students this year beyond its current enrollment cap, in part to help pay the costs of the new building.

The new building can hold 1,200 students, which is nearly twice the 620 students called for in its charter. Discovery is seeking an expansion of 430 students over the next five years.

The SRC is meeting Wednesday, but so far has no additional charter renewals on its agenda. Several charters besides Discovery want to expand. All told, 21 charters want to add 15,000 seats over five years.

Frank Keel, who handled the press around Discovery's ribbon cutting, referred questions regarding the status of the charter to Discovery founder and CEO Jacquelyn Kelley. Kelley did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

The battle over charter enrollment limits is high stakes. Now, the District sends more than $700 million to charters, which enroll more than 60,000 Philadelphia students. Under the current charter funding system, districts are required to reimburse charters on a per-student basis according to a formula for each student they enrolled the prior year. 

The District says it suffers a net loss of about $7,000 each time a student enrolls in a charter. Officials say they cannot plan financially if charters can expand at will. 

The issue of whether the District can impose enrollment caps on charters has been in court since 2010 in a case involving the Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. So far, the charters have prevailed. The Pennsylvania Department of Education has said that state law requires it to pay the charters and withhold the money from the District when a dispute arises.

The charter law, originally passed in 1997, was amended in 2008. One of the changes said that districts could request and enforce signed contracts from charters agreeing to enrollment caps.

In the first legal break for the District in the protracted dispute, the state Supreme Court, in the Walter Palmer case, recently granted a District appeal to hear arguments on whether the District could enforce an agreement signed before 2008.

Additional reporting by intern Sonia Giebel.

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Comments (7)

Submitted by concerned teacher (not verified) on June 18, 2013 9:07 pm
All they have to do is wait a year and I'm sure they will have plenty of expansion support. Caps and limiting charter expansion is a total joke.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on June 19, 2013 1:15 am
Their new building is one block from Joseph Leidy ES, which is slated to close at the end of this school year. Leidy has low-incidence students, mainly Life Skills Students. Would Discovery be willing to educate the Life Skills Support students, or just the regular ed students and students with mild disabilities? (Yeah, I didn't think so.) EGS
Submitted by Annony (not verified) on June 19, 2013 1:37 am
Thank you for this reminder. Discovery will not take low incidence students because of the cost. The District has to take on the cost. So, while Discovery has a fancy new building (with air conditioning!) public schools are closed. It is arrogance on the part of the Discovery leadership to assume they can double in size. Like most charters, it isn't doing anything new or different - it just is more selective in the students it allows through its doors.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 19, 2013 6:31 am
I thought the same exact things about charters for a while. I hated them for taking money from public schools and union teachers. Then, I had the opportunity to work at a charter. I saw the same kids that were in my district school. I saw people working hard for kids and dealing with many of the crazy issues faced in the district. The major difference was being able to think differently and worry about the children in the school specifically. It was a great experience. I think that the hard working people in all public schools should work together. The upper leadership (select few) in districts and charters are making millions and selling kids and adults down the river.
Submitted by Former Employee (not verified) on June 19, 2013 10:13 pm
You come for a visit and you will see what new things we are doing that is different from other schools, you come sit in a classroom to see how selective the school is. We can't screen the student's coming through those doors, they're the same kids in the district school just in a loving, structured, expeditionary learning environment. Just ask the kids who went to Spain, ask the 5th graders who go to Canada every year, ask the 8th graders who went to South Africa about DISCOVERY and most of all interview current or former employees/parent's. So,for you who was haste to make those ignorant comments, we forgive you cause you REALLY HAVE NO CLUE!!!!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 19, 2013 11:01 pm
Than why are you a "former employee?"
Submitted by evantage-technology (not verified) on June 26, 2013 5:16 am
Are better as well as file sharing.evantage-technology

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