A school's fate remains in question pending investigation
By Bill Hangley Jr. on May 6, 2014 03:06 PM
In the wake of a contentious and contested charter school election at Edward T. Steel School, District officials have promised City Council that next year’s Renaissance process will be better, with clearer criteria explaining schools’ selection and more time for everyone to prepare and take part.
But with the results of one of Steel’s two votes now in question, the school must wait to find out its fate.
Officials say they’ve only just begun investigating the various grievances about last week’s vote and won’t have a recommendation on the school’s future until that process is complete.
“Normally, it would have taken, I think, a few days,” said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn. “But now we have to figure out how we’re going to look at the allegations and the grievance and what our response is going to be.”
Steel, which serves about 600 K-8 students in Nicetown, is one of two schools selected this year to be “matched” with a charter operator as part of the 2014 Renaissance process. Parents, who had no idea that their school was being considered for the program, were given a month to choose between Mastery Charter and Steel’s current District staff.
A short and spirited campaign was followed by a two-part vote, newly designed by the District. In the first of the two votes, parents decisively rejected Mastery. In the second, a 17-member School Advisory Committee voted narrowly in Mastery’s favor.
The results of the “popular” vote, which was overseen by the League of Women Voters, are uncontested. Officials say they take those results at “face value.”
The committee’s vote, by comparison, was overseen by District officials and is clouded by allegations challenging its legitimacy. SAC members have filed several grievances, alleging that officials manipulated the SAC vote to give Mastery the edge.
Kihn said the District will soon begin a preliminary investigation of those grievances, in order to determine whether a deeper probe is needed. “Depending on the outcome of the initial [interviews], the superintendent and the charter school office will determine if there’s any additional work required,” Kihn said.
Questions at Council about choice
During Monday’s budget hearings, Council member Cindy Bass, whose district includes Steel, told District officials that the fast-tracked Renaissance process left her constituents confused and frustrated – and that it should be no surprise that they decisively rejected Mastery.
“People feel excluded, like there isn’t really a choice – you’re telling me there’s a choice but you already made the choice,” she said. “Where people feel excluded, you have to expect people are going to revolt.”
The popular vote was 121-55 in favor of Steel’s current staff, with 22 percent of eligible voters casting ballots, according to the District (any adult registered with the school as a student’s guardian was eligible to vote). That vote – a new innovation for the Renaissance process – went smoothly, with the League overseeing the casting and counting of ballots.
Meanwhile, the disputed SAC vote, which took place under District officials’ direct supervision, was 9-8 in favor of Mastery. Among the SAC members’ grievances is the allegation that officials went out of their way to locate two missing Mastery supporters and bring them in to vote before the polls closed.
The two-part vote’s results are nonbinding. Superintendent William Hite will make his own recommendation to the School Reform Commission, whose own vote will decide the issue.
Bass said later that where Steel is concerned, the District should not ignore the popular vote results.
“The District is going to have to take that into account,” Bass said. Recommending Mastery “would be a tough sell,” she said. “They’ve had some successes and done some really good things and we can’t discount that. So has the District.”
Kihn said the message of the popular vote was clear. “The majority of parents that voted … felt like the path forward was with the District leadership,” he said.
He said he was unconcerned by the possible influence of activists and advocates for either side.
“We are taking the vote at face value,” he said.
A view from Muñoz-Marin: “A lot of misinformation”
Not everyone is convinced of the value of the popular vote.
Council member Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s district is home to the District’s other proposed Renaissance school. Parents at Luis Muñoz-Marín Elementary will vote next month on whether to accept the charter provider ASPIRA.
Quiñones-Sánchez, who ran ASPIRA for four years in the late 1990s, fears a repeat of the Steel experience. She worries about giving too much weight to “uninformed” popular votes like the one that rejected Mastery.
Such votes can be easily swayed, she said, especially when parents unfamiliar with the ins and outs of their school’s performance are asked to make a decision quickly.
“I think what you have is, there’s a lot of fear and a lot of misinformation,” she said. “There’s a false kind of approval process. … Parents are going to make an uninformed decision, because the amount of time [given] to the process.”
Instead, Quiñones-Sánchez said she believes that the District should give more weight to the SAC members’ “more informed” votes. To be eligible to vote, SAC members are required to take tours of their proposed charter organization’s other schools (although they’re not required to tour a high-performing District school) and attend a certain number of community meetings.
Quiñones-Sánchez has been criticized for intervening in the Muñoz-Marin process to help secure a delay of the vote (“They know we are winning...so they want to extend the time,” said the school’s principal at the time), but she has denied trying to give her former employer any special favors. She said she’s just trying to make sure parents have the time they need to make an informed decision.
But the District’s fast-track process made a contentious vote virtually inevitable, she added. This year, parents were given no warning that their schools were being considered for transformation, and once the process began, it quickly got emotional.
“The propaganda that’s being put out by all sides … the District needs to come in and say, these are the facts,” she said. “There’s a lot of booing. They booed me, because of my relationship with ASPIRA.
“Every time you think the District gets it,” she said, “they create another process.”
Fund us, don't transform us
At Steel, the chair of the SAC is hoping that the time for talking process is done. She hopes to start a new conversation about funding.
“In the weeks ahead, we intend to meet with Dr. Hite and his leadership team to discuss adequate funding for our school,” said SAC president Kendra Brooks in a statement soon after the vote results were announced.
“The District currently funds Steel at just $3.9 million a year,” she said. “Mastery would have won a $6 million contract for this school. That $2 million difference must be made available to Steel school.”
District officials are mum on that proposal (and they’ve yet to confirm Mastery officials’ estimate that they would get $5.9 million to run the school), but their larger message at Council and everywhere else is that there isn’t an extra dime for anything.
Absent new funding and labor concessions, they say, District schools will see yet another round of staff and budget cuts.
Meanwhile, Mastery remains as interested as ever in Steel. Hite reminded City Council yesterday that his goal is to improve schools however he can. He left the door open to the possibility that the District will recommend Mastery to run Steel.
“I don’t want this lost in the conversation about to Renaissance or not to Renaissance, but Steel is a low-performing school,” Hite told Council. “Mastery is an organization that is known for taking similar populations and doing very well.”
But as for complaints about the Renaissance selection process, District officials say they hear them loud and clear. Hite told Council that the process needs to be reorganized to be both “clear on the criteria for the selections” and “clear on the timeframe.”
SRC Chairman Bill Green agreed that the process needs to be clearer and the timelines more generous.
“With respect to process, in future years, we are trying to set forth timelines that will be transparent,” he said. “Those timelines, once the administration recommends them and we agree upon them, will be known to everyone.”
Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook.