September 15 — 10:39 pm, 2016

SRC stalls again on four contested charter schools

src sept 15 Emma Lee (NewsWorks/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission has again delayed action on four turnaround charter schools that the District has recommended for non-renewal.

This is the second time Philadelphia’s top education officials have tabled decisions on the schools, which are all part of the city’s Renaissance schools initiative. Renaissance schools are District schools converted into charter schools, with the expectation of a quick academic turnaround. 

In May, Olney Charter High School and John B. Stetson Charter School of the ASPIRA network, and Audenried Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School and Vare Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School of the Universal Network were recommended for non-renewal by the District’s charter school office. The District cited poor academic performance, as well as financial and organizational instability in its calls for non-renewal.

The four schools have been in limbo since then, with the SRC’s five members unable to reach consensus on their fate. The schools were listed on the commission’s resolution agenda for Thursday’s SRC meeting, and it appeared initially that there might be some definitive action. 

Instead, after a brief public discussion, SRC Chair Marjorie Neff withdrew all four resolutions.

“It was clear that what we were going to do, as we did in May with Universal, is have a split vote,” said Neff. “And a split vote means no action is taken. So the hope is that we’ll keep working and come to a decision.”

Barring an unforeseen change, next month’s SRC meeting will be the third time a non-renewal vote is presented to the commission. For the two ASPIRA schools, Commissioner Bill Green hinted that it might be the last.

“If the governance issues which remain open with ASPIRA are not resolved,” Green said, “if the cross-collateralization and other lien issues with respect to their financing are not resolved by the October meeting to my satisfaction, I will certainly be seconding a motion to non-renew and voting to non-renew ASPIRA.”

In recommending non-renewal for the ASPIRA schools, the District charter office cited several transgressions, many of them related to financial and organizational mismanagement. They included accusations that ASPIRA schools took money earmarked for one charter and used it for another. Under Pennsylvania law, each charter school is required to be its own fiscal entity.

ASPIRA also made headlines earlier this month when an investigation by Fox 29 revealed the group’s insurance company  paid $350,000 to a former employee who had accused the organization’s CEO, Alfredo Calderon, of sexual harassment. The Fox 29 report also suggested that Calderon had a pattern of improper behavior toward female coworkers.

That report did not come up in Thursday’s meeting.

The commissioners did, however, refer to former City Solicitor Ken Trujillo, who has been attempting to resolve some of the organizational issues that have dogged the ASPIRA schools. Trujillo announced that he’d be assisting ASPIRA in late May, the last time the non-renewal proposals came before the SRC.

At that time, Green said the SRC should give Trujillo time to work with ASPIRA. On Thursday, he suggested that the window was closing.

"I’m at the point where I’m out of patience and I want to see action on this one way or the other so we can take it out of limbo,” Green said.

It’s less clear what the SRC intends to do with the two schools run by Universal. The commissioners didn’t discuss Vare or Audenried during the public portion of Thursday’s meeting.

In its recommendations for non-renewal at the two Universal schools, the District charter office cited sluggish academic growth and some management concerns.

Yet when the renewal resolutions came up for vote in May, the commissioners deadlocked. Green says he’d favor a modified, three-year renewal for Vare and Audenried with strict conditions. The SRC approved a similar arrangement at Universal Bluford, another Renaissance charter.

On Thursday, the SRC also approved contracts with two firms hired to help the District find properties that have been undervalued by the city and appeal those valuations.

The District collects tax revenue based on the assessed value of city properties, and the initiative is designed to find properties that have been under-assessed by $1 million or more. District officials suspect that there are scores of under-assessed properties and see the contracts as potential revenue generators.

The District selected Keystone Realty Advisors LLC to scour the city for under-assessed lots. It also hired Fellerman & Ciarimboli Law, P.C., a local law firm specializing in personal injury suits, to oversee the formal appeals process.

The District will pay Keystone Realty Advisors and Fellerman & Ciarimboli on a per-property basis, and money will only change hands if an appeal is successful. Under current city ordinance, the District receives 55 percent of property tax revenues and the city gets 45 percent. The property tax is the District’s major source of local revenue, while the city, which also gets revenue from the wage tax and other levies, is much less dependent on it.

The city will receive every cent of its share of extra revenue generated by the District’s new appeals initiative. The District, however, will divide its share with the firms it hired Thursday.

In the first two years after a successful appeal, the District will keep 60 percent of its share of the new tax dollars. The remaining 40 percent will be split evenly between the real estate appraisal firm and the law firm. After the two years passes, the District will keep all additional revenue in perpetuity.

For example, if a court determines that a property owner must pay $1 million more in property taxes, the city would collect its 45 percent, or $450,000. The remaining $550,000 would go to the District, which would then pay $110,000 each to Keystone Realty Advisors and Fellerman & Ciarimboli. The District’s net would be $330,000. That arrangement will remain in place for the first two years after the tax rate adjustment. From year three onward, the District would keep all $550,000 of its share.

The contract approved Thursday by the SRC permits the District to pay up to $500,000 to each firm. Upon crossing that threshold, the District would have to present a new contract to the SRC for the initiative to move forward.

In this effort, the District would be challenging the city’s own tax valuations. District Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson told the SRC Thursday that he’d discussed the strategy with the city’s Office of Property Assessment and that the city supported the School District’s efforts. He also reiterated earlier statements that he did not know how much extra tax money the firms would unearth.

Last fiscal year, the District received about $700 million from local property taxes.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the SRC established a new school to be housed at the old Vaux High School in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia. The District decided to close Vaux in 2013 after a failed turnaround attempt.

The replacement school will be called Vaux High School: A Big Picture School (Vaux BPS). It will enroll 500 students in grades 9-12 and open in time for the 2017-18 school year. The reanimated version of Vaux will be a contract school, meaning it will be run by a nonprofit group – in this case the Big Picture Learning network – but will remain a District school. Several schools in the District’s Innovative Schools network operate under the same model.

The rebirth of Vaux coincides with an ambitious development project in Sharswood spearheaded by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.


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