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ASPIRA teachers must be free to speak out

by Kim Johnson

As a veteran charter school educator and as the president of the Philadelphia Alliance of Charter School Employees (ACSE), I am appalled at the revelations in Daniel Denvir’s Aug. 29 City Paper article “Charter operator owed its school millions, but no one’s checking its books.”

Apparent fiscal mismanagement and ethical lapses by charter operators undermine well-intentioned charter schools and their hardworking staff. The time has come for all charter teachers and staff to address these issues head-on or run the risk of tarnishing the charter school movement and the dedicated educators who share our commitment to providing high-quality educational opportunities to our children and communities.

The idea that a nonprofit organization would dare to play a shell game with taxpayer dollars that should be going directly to the students of ASPIRA’s five charters is troubling at best. But the idea that the School Reform Commission, which is responsible legally for charter school oversight, has little power to access or audit the financial workings of these organizations is unconscionable. At a time when every one of our city’s schools, District and charter alike, is starved for the funds necessary to provide for our students’ needs, it's unacceptable that an entity is more interested in making profits than in educating children. Pennsylvania taxpayers have a right to expect more transparency in charter fiscal and management dealings, not more loopholes and subterfuge. 

Although the allegations of impropriety involved high-level employees, the teachers and staff at ASPIRA’s Olney High School campus have asked the administration and the board repeatedly to recognize their union and not allow ASPIRA’s management to interfere with this process or intimidate their co-workers. Union representation can provide checks and balances on school operations, while basic due-process rights allow teachers and staff who suspect wrongdoing to speak out without fear of reprisals.

The shenanigans reported in the City Paper article make it clear why ASPIRA’s management has refused to meet with its staff: It wants to keep employees a considerable distance from the financial workings of the school.

The financial games at ASPIRA are why charter employees must be able to form unions, as is their legal right. Employees of all public institutions, and particularly those charged with the academic, social, and civic development of our youth, must be able to speak freely about wrongdoing. These taxpayer funds must be spent directly on educating our students, which must always be our primary goal. Only with that security can we advocate effectively and vigorously for our students.

Kim "Mama Omotayo" Johnson is the president of the Alliance of Charter School Employees and a teacher at Khepera Charter School.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. 

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Comments (28)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2013 12:17 pm
And this is the BIGGEST problem of the "Fix is in." They simply have no rules and the pols like it that way. I am NOT against charter schools as long as they follow the genesis under which they were founded but 95% of them now just rob the real Public Schools of much needed money as well as threaten their teachers with exile if they dare to want livable worker rights. That can not be accepted in a free society though the corporations are always chasing that dream. Eventually, the people will realize the folly of this kind of charter school and the tide will turn. It probably can't happen soon enough to save a whole generation of kids though. Thank You for your wonderful article.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2013 3:07 pm
I apologize profusely. I was moving around Delaware County and I used a friend's computer. That was my post------Joe K.
Submitted by Headstart teacher (not verified) on September 6, 2013 6:58 pm
Hey Joe K.!!
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on September 6, 2013 6:37 pm
Hi -----------------Hope all is well with you today. Joe K.
Submitted by Annonym (not verified) on September 6, 2013 12:36 pm
It is more than ironic that Apira claims to be following the philosophy of Paulo Freire. He must be overturning in his grave...
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2013 1:25 pm
The worst of the matter is that 2 recent Aspira charter school renewals did not disclose this. Is Ramos SRC chairman involved somehow?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2013 3:20 pm
Yes, I was told something along those lines about 20 minutes ago too. This is exactly, the kind of crap that charters do with impunity, the whole time robbing the real PUBLIC SCHOOLS of much needed funding. Does anybody past the age of reason, think Kenny Gamble does anything good for kids under his domain for example ?? ALL of this, is why the schools need to strike and expose ALL of it for public consumption. Even Obama would have to play President for a minute and do something, hopefully to help. I know he's busy following orders from The Koch Bros and Dick Cheney et al right now with trying to play the justice card in Asia to rob them of more oil but even he would have to at least pretend to care about the kids in Philly for a minute. Of course, it would also make The Supreme Court decide if Philly Teachers had the same rights as teachers all over the country.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2013 4:37 pm
Please stop equating Renaissance Charter Schools with all charter schools. The majority of charter schools do not get the special treatment nor huge expansions that the Renaissance schools do.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2013 5:01 pm
Sure charter schools are treated special. Nothing happens until the Feds arrest the CEOs and co-conspirators. That takes years. Isn't June Brown' s trial coming up soon?
Submitted by Headstart teacher (not verified) on September 6, 2013 6:56 pm
If we were to get all the millions of dollars back that charters have STOLEN how far would that go to alleviating the budget "crisis" ?? Hmmmm .... Something to think about. How many neighborhood schools have stolen from their operating budget lately? Just putting it out there ya'll
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on September 6, 2013 9:35 pm
Headstart Teacher--I love you more and more and more and.........
Submitted by Headstart teacher (not verified) on September 7, 2013 1:46 am
I am blushing.
Submitted by Julie Stapleton Carroll (not verified) on September 6, 2013 11:04 pm
Why would you every assume it was the neighborhood school that was "stealing" from their operating budgets? Have you done a thorough review of the School District of Philadelphia's budgets? I think you might be surprised to find that, overall, charters operate a lot more efficiently and with more dollars going directly to children than the SDP.
Submitted by tom-104 on September 7, 2013 12:45 am
How would you know this since there is no transparency with charters? So this is all a figment of your imagination based on no evidence. "Charter operator owed its schools millions, but no one's checking its books" | Philadelphia City Paper by Daniel Denvir "The state Auditor General, which has seen its staff reduced by 24 percent in recent years, doesn’t have the capacity to audit all the new charter schools that have opened in the past five years. Only three Philadelphia charter schools have been audited since 2008. Aspira’s five charters are not among them." http://tinyurl.com/nqccn62
Submitted by Headstart teacher (not verified) on September 7, 2013 1:51 am
Seriously?!?!?! Do you even read the news - ever? It seems like every week a new charter is being investigated because some CEO decided to use the publicly funded budget as their personal ATM. It's not even news anymore. No one is shocked because we have learned that charters are give a FREE PASS to break the law.
Submitted by Annonym. (not verified) on September 7, 2013 4:49 am
Julie Stapleton Carroll is an apologist for charter theft. She ran Wissahickon Charter, was an executive with Foundations Inc., and now is the "founding partner" of Principles School, Inc. She is making money off of the privatization of schools. No wonder she supports ignoring the corruptions of charters!
Submitted by Annonym. (not verified) on September 7, 2013 4:54 am
Charters' business manager admits role in fraud scheme "By Martha Woodall, Inquirer Staff Writer POSTED: March 16, 2013 The former business manager of the Philadelphia-area charter-school network founded by Dorothy June Brown pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to his role in an alleged scheme to defraud the schools of $6.7 million. In a separate hearing later in the day, attorneys for Brown won a bail reduction for the 75-year-old educator, who faces more than 60 counts of wire fraud and charges that she led a broad conspiracy to obstruct justice. Anthony Smoot, 50, of New Castle, Del., pleaded guilty to charges that he participated in a conspiracy with Brown and others to obstruct justice and had obstructed justice during parts of a four-year federal probe of the schools. Smoot handled finances for Brown's taxpayer-funded schools from 2001 until she fired him in May 2010. The federal probe began in May 2008. Smoot admitted fabricating, altering, and backdating charter board minutes, invoices, contracts, and financial records to mask the fact that Brown - and not the charters' boards - was running the schools, and that she and her two management companies were receiving millions in taxpayer funds from the schools..."
Submitted by Headstart teacher (not verified) on September 7, 2013 1:28 am
The neighborhood schools don't have any money in their budgets so nothing for principals to "misappropriate" Even if they do have loads of $$ they have to account for every penny spent and keep it transparent, for the public to look and see. Why are charters considered so trustworthy when they have abused this trust again and again? The online schools CEO stole, just took- something like 3 million. It was not a gift or a bonus!! It was public money that was to be used to educate children. There was no mistake. She robbed her own school and has gotten away with it so far. By the time this is prosecuted that money will be long gone. I believe she is still operating charter schools, btw. This is not the exception it's the norm because no one oversees these business and follows the money trail until its gone.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2013 7:06 am
Charters need to weed out their lemons or they will be just as bad as the pft run schools after a couple decades.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2013 8:47 am
You are right. Because the moral superiority dripping from these posts ignore the fact that even most cheating charters outperform the neighborhood schools and even community academy, with its boatload of problems, is still a better choice than Edison, Frankford, Clemente, or any of the Kensingtons. If the SDP did a better job of oversite, there would be little for us to criticize in charters. I'm just putting that out there.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2013 8:42 am
Show us the data supporting your comment that charters outperform traditional public schools. I won't hold my breath waiting for your data.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2013 8:38 am
I don't work for you. Look it up. For example, take Community Academy. Name a better performing SDP school in that area? Grad rates, state tests, or college enrollment. You know the data better than I. I'm not here to debate, but you know I'm right. Now it's time for you to bring up the "we take all the kids" argument. Have a nice day.
Submitted by tom-104 on September 7, 2013 8:19 am
You should look in the mirror. "Charter operator owed its schools millions, but no one's checking its books" "The state Auditor General, which has seen its staff reduced by 24 percent in recent years, doesn’t have the capacity to audit all the new charter schools that have opened in the past five years. Only three Philadelphia charter schools have been audited since 2008. Aspira’s five charters are not among them." http://citypaper.net/article.php?Charter-operator-owed-its-schools-milli...
Submitted by Headstart teacher (not verified) on September 7, 2013 9:43 am
Now you are a liar and a thief????
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2013 1:46 pm
I am a teacher at an ASPIRA charter. Hearing these things about what is going on in our organization is disheartening. Especially since my fellow teachers and I do not have the resources we need to do the best for our students. The reasons cited, the budget. Yet we have enough money for guest speakers that we fly in from other states and an expensive new planning system that doesn't benefit my students anymore than typing my plans would. My biggest worry is that this will effect my students more than it already has, and that it could cost my colleagues and I our jobs.
Submitted by Concerned Phila (not verified) on September 7, 2013 2:39 pm
This is the problem with the Charter companies - instead of funding classrooms they are expanding their empires. I hear your pain - best with the union organizing effort!
Submitted by J Dick (not verified) on October 2, 2013 4:33 pm
Re: “An analysis of Senator Kirk's charter school 'analysis'” From a letter that went out to dozens of media sources, funders and politicians: I am sending this letter to all interested parties to report a social injustice at Aspira Inc. of Illinois. As an example of gross misappropriation of public funding, the Aspira Board of Directors led by the chairman, Fernando Grillo and the Chief Executive Officer, Jose Rodriguez, spent over $50,000.00 of public funds on a three day “retreat” in a Lake Geneva resort, over the summer. This mini-vacation, courtesy of the tax-payers of Illinois was put together by Grillo and Rodriguez to benefit the politically connected consulting firm of Charlie Serrano and Company who was awarded a lucrative no-bid contract to provide “board training” to the group. Serrano, who sources indicate is a close friend to Grillo was paid $25,000.00 to provide board development even though he has no experience in board development. They spent another $25,000 in other related expenses including hotel rooms, meals etc. This $50,000.00 should have been used to pay for resources to help the Aspira Charter High School where 85% of the students are not meeting academic standards. It should have been used to pay for a full time specialized teacher to help bring up the scores. It should have been used to pay for after-school tutoring benefitting the lowest performers at the schools. But apparently education is not the board’s or CEO’s priority. Instead they decided to use the $50,000 on themselves in one weekend. Fernando Grillo, is a partner in the investment firm of Samuel Ramirez & Company, and a close friend to disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich, crooked Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, 31st Ward Alderman Ray Suarez, Congressman Luis Gutierrez and State Senator Iris Martinez among others. He and his investment firm have contributed thousands of dollars to their political campaigns (this can be confirmed through campaign disclosures in the State Board of Elections website). You may remember Grillo as the Director of the Illinois Department of Professional Regulations who was forced to resign under a cloud of suspicion just prior to Blagojevich’s indictment. Ironically this department regulates financial institutions. Fernando Grillo used his influence to hire Serrano and Company to do the board training. How many more contracts has he steered to his friends? This is a clear conflict of interest.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2013 9:07 am
Does anyone know the outcome of the October 15 hearing regarding Olney teachers wanting to form a union?

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