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Charter head calls state Supreme Court decision against his school 'political'

By Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks on May 29, 2014 08:31 AM
Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in favor of the School Reform Commission in a case involving student enrollment caps at a Philadelphia charter school.

In a unanimous decision overturning a lower court ruling, the state's high court said that the Philadelphia School District and the SRC were within their legal rights to cap enrollment at Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School based on a mutually signed agreement.

In 2005, Palmer agreed to abide by a cap of 675 students, but a Commonwealth Court later ruled that Palmer should be paid $1.3 million from the District for students in excess of the cap. In its 2005 charter-renewal application, the Palmer school asked to increase its cap. The SRC denied its request, citing poor academic performance on state standardized tests.

Palmer argued that, although the school had signed a five-year charter in 2005, the SRC had unilaterally imposed the cap.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected that argument. "The SRC and the charter school then entered into, as of September 1, 2005, a legally binding agreement," wrote Justice Seamus McCaffery in the opinion.

School founder Walter Palmer characterized the outcome as a "patently wrong" decision based more on politics than legality.

"One of the things I always said and shared with people is, if in fact the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would make a decision based on the law ... we'd prevail," he said. "If they made a decision based on politics, we would not."

Palmer said he had no specific information to back up his allegations, but broadly characterized Philadelphia as a "political" and "incestuous" city.

Palmer's K-12 school now serves almost 1,300 students on campuses in Northern Liberties and Frankford.

For the 2007-08 school year, Palmer's average daily enrollment was about 729 students. For the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, the average daily enrollment was approximately 732 and 765 students, respectively.

In these years, the District paid the charter for only 675 students. Palmer appealed to the state Department of Education in 2010.

Based on the 2008 state law that bars districts from unilaterally capping charter enrollment, the department agreed that Palmer was underpaid for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years.

The department then diverted $1.3 million from the District's share of state funds directly to the school.

The School District appealed the decision in 2012, but the Commonwealth Court affirmed the Department of Education's rationale.

In Tuesday's opinion, the Supreme Court said the Commonwealth Court and the department "imposed a requirement that has no basis in the statute."

Nothing in the language of the law supports the view, the court said, that agreed-to caps become invalid based on the 2008 changes to the charter law.

The court said the terms of Palmer's charter make it "unmistakably clear" that the District was within its rights to withhold payment for students enrolled beyond the cap.

"The charter school's arguments to the contrary lack merit," the decision read. "The charter school's contention that the enrollment cap was somehow unilaterally imposed without its consent, acquiescence, or agreement is belied by the straightforward text of the 2005 charter, a 'legally binding agreement' signed by the charter school."

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Comments (9)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 29, 2014 10:45 am
Does Palmer have the money to pay the SDP back? Can anyone say HELL NO!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 29, 2014 11:43 am
That's what they get because they shouldn't have taken on more kids. They only took the additional kids for the money not to educate them. And he says that they will not decrease enrollment. How can they afford not to? This school will be closed sooner then we think!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 29, 2014 11:11 am
Because "The department then diverted $1.3 million from the district's share of state funds directly to the school", then the state should divert the $ back to the school district and they can fight with the charter to be reimbursed! Perhaps we can spend that money on nurses and counselors!
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on May 29, 2014 12:46 pm
This statement is a lot like the education the children are apparently receiving, it lacks facts and rigor. Why give him a soapbox? There are no facts backing up this delusion. What happens when this whole rotten richly muraled edifice comes tumbling down due to mismanagement? I hope the public schools get to say not our problem you went to the charter so you fix it parents! Somehow I think they will say it is the public schools that have to clean up the mess made by this incompetence.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 29, 2014 12:59 pm
He signed the contract that says how many students he was suppose to have. Don't sign a contract and then say, well that's not the law and try to fight in court. He wasted all that money in court fees that should have went to supporting education. Not get him more students.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on May 29, 2014 12:59 pm
It is a sad situation for the parents. Their unhappiness with their traditional school options can not be ignored however. They were unhappy enough to take their chances with this charter which somehow gained their trust.
Submitted by simplyforposting (not verified) on June 2, 2014 11:53 am
Ms. Cheng, Clearly people are not happy with their public schools. But doesn't the Palmer situation (and the entire cyber charter fiasco) demonstrate that parental choice should not be the driving factor of our public school policy? It shows that there are plenty of parents out there who, left to their own devices, will not make "choices" that improve their individual child's education and, even more importantly, will not make choices that are good for the system or our city as a whole. This is the whole reason we have "public" education to begin with. Many parents simply do not make good choices. There must be checks on any individualized private-choice driven system.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on June 2, 2014 12:05 pm
I do agree that parents don't always make the best choices, but I think we need to ask these parents why they were willing to take their chances with W. Palmer, and stay, even when things weren't really much better, maybe even worse, than at their traditional public school(s). In my experience, parents that make the effort to transfer their children feel more of an urgent need, than those who don't, whether it is bullying or other crisis situation. Here in Philly, there are a lot of parents who are still children themselves, and make decisions based on emotional needs, rather than rational thinking; so yes, there's a good chance they will make bad decisions. One still has to sympathize with their desire to make things better (whether for their children or themselves). It would be too politically controversial to screen the reasons why families wish to transfer their children. Probably the time frame in which a charter has to be evaluated should be shortened rather than lengthened. Charters definitely need to prove how their approach is any different than what is offered in the traditional public schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 30, 2014 10:07 am
Politics and BS is what education is all about now. Some Charters pay people whatever they want without a pay scale and hire whoever they want. They stretch money in the crappiest ways. The traditional public school system in Philly is just as much of a joke. All this back and forth crap by all these suit and tie guys is all political. You close a school and open another. You close a school and send kids to others. The checks and balance of this are ridiculous.

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