May 30 — 11:43 pm, 2019

Dissent among school board members over potential sale of Belmont charter school

A teacher resident in Relay Graduate School of Education, which sought a new contract, criticized the institution.

School board member Chris McGinley speaks during a school board meeting May 30. (Photo: Greg Windle)

Updated (6/3/19): The conditions that Belmont Elementary Charter School signed in order to renew its charter are now included at the bottom of this article. 

The Philadelphia Board of Education denied the revised charter school application from American Paradigm schools on Thursday night and unanimously renewed three other charters.

Another charter, Belmont Elementary Charter School, was approved with conditions, but with strong dissent from some board members. The school has proposed to buy the District building it is now renting. Belmont has been operating without a signed charter agreement since 2017 due to disagreements with the District over the conditions it has now agreed to.

“I object,” said school board member Chris McGinley, referring to Belmont’s renewal. “And I’ll be voting no, because the terms and conditions, while they don’t specifically refer to the sale of the building, this is all part of a deal that will obligate the board later to sell that building.”

The school, run by the Belmont Charter Network, would use a nonprofit to buy the building from the District. It’s valued at $2.4 million, and Belmont will buy it for $2.8 million. In the process, the District will unload the remaining debt on the building’s construction – roughly $1 million. Financially, it seems like a fine deal for the District.

Board member Lee Huang, who voted in favor of the renewal, said, “It is my understanding that the transaction is contingent on the renewal.”

But the charter has a catchment area, so it functions like a neighborhood school. If it were to lose its charter, the District would lose that neighborhood school and have to buy or rent the building back – or take on millions in debt to build a new school.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to sell that building, but further, I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to sell a neighborhood,” McGinley said. “By selling the building, we are permanently removing our presence in that neighborhood.”

McGinley and Mallory Fix-Lopez voted against the renewal.

Joyce Wilkerson called the sale “problematic” before voting for the renewal. She said it’s “essential” to ensure that if the charter closes, “the School District have the ability to get the school back.”

“We have any number of charters that could come before us making the same kind of demand,” Wilkerson said, referring to charters renting District buildings. “We should consider a policy that we will not be selling District buildings with catchment areas.”

The charters renewed unanimously were Ad Prima, Esperanza Academy, and Mariana Bracetti Academy.

Members of the watchdog group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools testified against the sale of Belmont’s building to a charter management organization that has Michael Karp on its board. Karp is a longtime University City real estate developer and treasurer of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority – a state oversight body that holds Philadelphia’s purse strings in that it must approve or reject the city’s five-year financial plans. Karp sat on the old Philadelphia school board, though he was removed in 1999 by Mayor John Street, who called him a “destructive force.”

At the meeting, the board also unanimously approved a fiscal 2020 budget of $3.4 billion, representing a 7.1 percent increase over this year. Most of the increase is due to higher charter school payment costs and negotiated salary increases for members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. But there were several new expenses, including additional teachers for English learners and school nurses and a push to give students more math support in the early grades along the lines of the literacy initiative.

The District will end the fiscal year with a small surplus, but expects to begin falling behind after that. By 2023, without additional revenue sources, officials anticipate a $262 million shortfall. Two bills pending in City Council are aimed at reducing the property tax burden on homeowners. If passed, they could cost the District $500 million of expected revenue in the next five years.

Under law, the board must approve a budget by the end of May.

American Paradigm’s proposed new charter denied

Tacony Academy at St. Vincent’s reapplication by American Paradigm was voted down unanimously after an evaluation by the Charter Schools Office, citing a revised budget that contains “inconsistencies” in the cost of staff, fees and benefits.

The reapplication added to the instructional and assessment methods but did not “comprehensively” show how the academic model will succeed in improving test scores, according to the Charter Schools Office. Although the school submitted curricula for many classes that were missing in the original application, the social studies curriculum was still not aligned to several state standards.

The staffing levels remained insufficient, the charter office said. And they cited concerns that American Paradigm Schools, the charter management company, has too much power over the new school’s board when the dynamic should be the other way around. American Paradigm can terminate the management contract if the school’s board hires a principal without the company’s approval or if it does not fire a principal that the company wants out.

Half the charters in the state are located in Philadelphia. Two bills now under consideration in Harrisburg would weaken districts’ ability to regulate charter schools. Board President Joyce Wilkerson urged the audience to oppose the bills, SB 356 and 357.

Superintendent William Hite, who traveled to Harrisburg recently with other urban superintendents to plead for more state revenue and rally against the legislation, agreed.

“We implore members of the General Assembly to reject these bills,” Hite said.

School Board President Joyce Wilkerson and Superintendent William Hite joke during introductory remarks (Photo: Greg Windle)

 

Controversy over professional development contracts

The board added dollars to contracts with the colleges of education at Temple University, Drexel University, and the University of Pennsylvania to run teacher residency programs. It also expanded a contract with the Relay Graduate School of Education, though Relay is not an accredited graduate school of education in Pennsylvania. Collectively, these contracts will provide residencies for up to 75 teachers at a cost of $637,500, an increase from the current $425,000.

Danika Nieves is a first-year teacher at Edison High School – one of a cohort of 20 teacher residents under Relay. Nieves testified about her problems with Relay’s residency and demanded that the school board deny them another contract. She said “nearly all” of her instructors are Teach for America alumni “with little classroom experience” and all have a “charter school background.”

“The program is geared toward training teachers to deliver pre-packaged lessons in privatized schools with top-down, scripted curriculums,” Nieves said. “Throughout the year, Relay instructors had us spend hours giving instructions to the wall or calculating the number of hours lost if kids don’t move around the classroom in perfect boot-camp formation. And even doing teacher aerobics set to music, where we practiced standing on our tiptoes, crouching down to help a student and popping up like a groundhog to monitor the rest of the class.

“I found myself wondering when the gimmicks would end.”

Alaina Harper, Relay’s dean, told the board that her school’s program produces “quality, diverse teachers who are committed to our schools and are entering and staying in our profession.” The District has also said that Relay has helped to recruit and retain more minority teachers. Harper said that’s part of Relay’s model, and they do it “consistently.”

“We ask you to support and continue this partnership, because it’s important that all teachers understand the cultural needs of our students,” Harper told the school board.

Nieves found other Relay practices “troubling” for socioeconomic reasons.

“We were shown many videos of ideal teaching that included a lot of test-prep drills, chanting, boot-camp-esque classroom management, and telling kids to track the speaker as though we would be training dogs rather than children,” Nieves said. “I couldn’t help but wonder whether these tactics would be acceptable at schools on the Main Line.

“They wouldn’t. So they shouldn’t be acceptable for kids in Philadelphia.”

“When I questioned Relay’s obsessive focus on data collection at the expense of a more holistic teaching practice, a Relay instructor told me that I might want to consider a different career,” Nieves said. “I love my students, and I don’t want to consider a different career, but I do hope the board will reconsider Relay.”

Neubauer Foundation funding professional development

The District will now fund nine new principals entering the PhillyPLUS Residency, awarding $90,000 to The New Teacher Project (TNTP) for the work. The District’s costs are lower because most costs are covered by the Neubauer Family Foundation, which also funds TNTP.

The foundation is also covering most of the costs of another contract providing professional development to new assistant superintendents provided by New Leaders Inc. McGinley was the lone dissenting vote. It will cost the District up to $295,000 and will “include Communities of Practice sessions, learning walks, school visits, one-on-one coaching and sustainability action planning.”

Neubauer also gave the school board a grant of $24,000 to train board members in the Accelerate Board Capacity Summer Institute run by the Harvard Business School and developed by the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS), of which the District is a member.

Membership in the Council of Great City Schools

The District is now authorized to pay its annual membership fee of $50,000 to the Council of Great City Schools  – a national organization that provides a forum for urban school districts to share promising practices and address common concerns while providing “legislation, communications, research, and technical assistance.”

The organization shares Hite’s three anchor goals; its fourth goal has not been stated explicitly by the District: Never run a deficit.

“Staff with responsibilities for curricula, research and testing, finance, operations personnel, technology, legislation, communication, and other areas confer regularly under the auspices of CGCS to share concerns and solutions and discuss what works in boosting achievement and managing operations,” the board resolution reads.

Contracts galore

The District will add the law offices of Joel Kofsky, a local personal injury attorney, to the already long list of outside law firms it has retained to work on an “as-needed basis” for an unspecified amount. The board hired Lyneer Staffing Solutions to provide secretaries, clerks, and paralegals to the Office of General Counsel for an annual payment of $70,000. And the board approved payment of more than $10 million to hire PMA Management Corp. through 2027 to audit workers’ compensation claims – work that PMA has been doing for the past seven years for the District.

A few local nonprofits and universities got contracts to provide programming for homeless students over the summer and to pregnant and parenting students throughout the school year.

The board added CherryRoad Technologies to the 10-year, $49 million contract to implement the new Oracle Cloud Enterprise Resource Planning by 2028. CherryRoad will be paid nearly $5 million, bringing the new total to $54 million.

Foundations Inc. was hired for $190,00 to provide professional development on “support culture, climate, and instruction” at Roosevelt Elementary School, located on East Washington Lane, near Chew Avenue. The company was hired because over the last three school years, the school has made only “incremental” gains on the School Performance Review, moving from 2 percent up to 16 percent. The school’s principal will be trained in “distributive leadership” while the teachers will be trained “in the creation of high-quality assessments.”

Hobsons was awarded a five-year $2.7 million contract for Naviance, an online college and career readiness platform already in use throughout the District. It can send transcripts and letters of recommendation to the over 2,000 colleges and universities involved, along with providing “career exploration, academic planning and college preparation.” The District said its use has led to an increase in the number of black and Latino students applying to college.

The board also approved smaller contracts for repairs and renovations in various schools. And it purchased $530,000 in furniture for the three schools, all serving K-8, that have most recently been placed into the new turnaround program, called the System of Great Schools: Avery Harrington Elementary, Alain Locke Elementary, and Robert Lamberton Elementary.

Belmont’s conditions

The following list of conditions is excerpted from the school board’s resolution to renew Belmont Elementary Charter School:

FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Charter School has agreed to comply with certain performance requirements (“Performance Requirements”) as set forth below. Failure to comply with the Performance Requirements may be a basis for revocation or nonrenewal of the Charter School’sCharter.

1. The Board of Trustees shall ensure that all trustees, officers, administrators, and the immediate family of trustees, officers and administrators of the Charter School comply with the Ethics Act and the Pennsylvania Nonprofit Corporation Law of 1988(“Nonprofit Law”). The Board of Trustees shall adopt a Conflicts of Interest policy thatcomplies with the Ethics Act and the Nonprofit Law.

2. The Board of Trustees shall elect Board officers, shall hold Board members to established term lengths and limits, shall ensure that the Board has the minimum required number of Board members, and shall fill open Board seats in a timely fashion, in accordance with the Charter School’s Bylaws.

3. The Board of Trustees shall use its best efforts to meet at least once during each full month when the Charter School is in session during the Term of the Charter. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Board of Trustees shall meet to take action in a timely manner in accordance with the Charter, Applicable Laws (as defined in Article II, Section A.1), and the Charter School’s Student Code of Conduct, but no less frequently than necessary to act on student discipline matters within forty-five (45) days after any infraction or hearing as required by Applicable Laws (as defined in Article II, Section A.1).

4. The Board of Trustees shall adopt an Admissions Policy and Process which complies with the Public School Code and Charter School Law. Additionally, the Admissions Policy and Process:

a. shall include provisions on: (i) application deadlines; (ii) enrollment preferences, order and allocation of preferences, and methods by which preferences would be identified; (iii) student recruitment procedures and communications, including details on methods to be used to recruit students Citywide or in an applicable attendance zone, and to monitor any specified enrollment targets; (iv) lottery dates, and (v) communication of lottery results, in a form and with provisions that are acceptable to the Charter Schools Office;

b. shall provide that the application will be made clearly and plainly available on the Charter School’s website in English, Spanish, and any additional language the Charter School deems appropriate without any barriers to enrollment requiring technology;

c. shall provide that families have at least four (4) weeks to complete and return enrollment packets post-lottery acceptance; with exceptions made for extenuating circumstances for families with language barriers;

d. shall provide that an ordered, up-to-date waitlist be continuously maintained, reflecting at any given time the next eligible student to be offered admission in each grade served by the Charter School, identifying any applicable preference(s) for each student, and indicating the date any student is removed from the waitlist with the reason for removal;

e. shall provide that if seats open during the school year for any grade served by the school or between school years for grades served other than the initial grade, the Charter School shall accept new students from the waiting list in appropriate order for particular grades or new applicants if there are no applicants for that grade on the waiting list; and

f. shall provide that the Charter School shall provide a copy of its current waiting list at any time during the Term of the Charter within ten (10) business days after request by the Charter Schools Office.

5. The Board of Trustees shall submit to the School District by August 1st of each year during the Term of the Charter as part of the Charter School’s Annual Report, or separately if not included in the Charter School’s Annual Report, evidence that all professional staff providing educational services at the Charter School have all necessary licenses, certifications, qualifications and credentials required by the Charter and Applicable Laws, including without limitation the seventy-five percent (75%) certification requirement in accordance with the Charter School Law, and identify the number of all certified special education and English as a Second Language personnel with direct instruction responsibilities.

6. The Board of Trustees shall ensure that (i) all employees have required federal and state criminal and child abuse background checks during the Term of the Charter;and (ii) copies of such background checks are kept in each employee’s personnel file. Preferably, the Charter School’s annual financial audit will include an annual review of a sample of employee files for appropriate clearances and background checks in any amount repeatedly shall result in the issuance of a Notice of Deficiency to the Charter School.

7. The Board of Trustees shall ensure that required payments to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (“PSERS”) are made timely. If the Charter School fails to make timely payments to PSERS and that results in a reduction of the School District’s basic education subsidy, the School District shall withhold such reduction in a future monthly per-pupil payment to the Charter School.

8. The Board of Trustees shall submit to the Charter Schools Office signed, complete Statements of Financial Interest, pursuant to guidelines established by the Charter Schools Office. These documents are required by the Ethics Act and the Charter School Law to be completed annually for each trustee on the Board’s roster for that school year.

9. The Board of Trustees shall ensure that the dates, times, and locations of scheduled Board meetings are posted on the Charter School’s website and that any updates to the Board meeting schedule are posted timely. Furthermore, minutes from Board meetings shall be posted on the Charter School’s website within two weeks of approval by the Board of Trustees, but not later than after the conclusion of a second consecutive board meeting after each meeting, and shall remain posted for a minimum of one year from date of Board meeting.

10. The Board of Trustees agree that the Charter School shall participate in the School District’s charter school performance framework and monitoring system (“Charter School Performance Framework”) as set forth in Article X of the Charter;

and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Charter School has agreed to comply with certain conditions for renewal (“Conditions for Renewal”) based on the comprehensive renewal review by the [Charter Schools Office] as set forth below. Failure to comply with the Conditions for Renewal as set forth below may be a basis for revocation or nonrenewal of the Charter School’s Charter.

1. Prior to the execution of the Charter by the School District, the Charter School shall submit to the Charter Schools Office for review and approval the executed lease or sublease and information about renovations, maintenance, and financial responsibilities related to the Charter School’s use of the facilities at 1301 Belmont Avenue, Philadelphia, PA.

2. Prior to the execution of the Charter by the School District, the Charter School shall submit to the Charter Schools Office for review and approval the contract between the Charter School and the Charter School’s management company that accurately reflects all of the duties, services, obligations and liabilities of each party to the other with respect to the operation of the Charter School or services to be provided to the Charter School, including specific provisions on management fees, which shall be approved by the respective governing boards of each entity.

3. Prior to the execution of the Charter by the School District, the Charter School shall submit to the Charter Schools Office a list of the names and addresses of the board members of the Charter School which demonstrates that none of the voting board members of the Charter School serve on the board of Community Education Alliance of Pennsylvania or on the board of any entity with which the Charter School has a contractual agreement.

4. Prior to the execution of the Charter by the School District, the Charter School shall submit to the Charter Schools Office for review and approval evidence of alignment of all of the Charter School’s curricula for K-Grade 12 to Pennsylvania Core Standards;

and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED, the School District and Belmont acknowledge and agree that the Charter School will enroll a maximum of 780 students in Kindergarten through Grade 8 and a maximum of 500 students in Grade 9 through Grade 12 during the Term of the Charter, unless the parties agree in writing to other terms. Under no circumstances will the Charter School request payment from the School District or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for more students than set forth herein nor enroll students in different grades including Kindergarten, without Board of Education approval by action item; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED, that Belmont has agreed to the following provisions related to the School District’s Charter School Performance Framework:

1. The Charter School agrees to participate in the School District’s Charter School Performance Framework. The Charter School Performance Framework includes an annual assessment of the Charter School’s academic, financial, and organizational performance as well as compliance with Applicable Laws. Organizational performance includes, but is not limited to, a

2. The Charter School agrees to provide or allow to be provided to the School District and the Charter Schools Office all records, including student level academic performance, necessary to properly assess the academic success, organizational compliance and viability, and financial health and sustainability of the Charter School under the Charter School Performance Framework, timely and pursuant to Charter Schools Office procedures.

3. The Charter School acknowledges that achieving the performance objectives identified in the Charter School Performance Framework is critical to meeting the needs of public school students in Philadelphia. The Charter School shall actively monitor its own progress towards achieving objectives identified in the Charter School Performance Framework. The Charter Schools Office may also evaluate any or all of the performance domains – academic, organizational and financial – on an annual basis formally. If the Charter School continues to fail to meet standards for academic success, organizational compliance and viability, and/or financial health and sustainability, the Charter Schools

8. The Board of Trustees shall submit to the Charter Schools Office signed, complete Statements of Financial Interest, pursuant to guidelines established by the Charter Schools Office. These documents are required by the Ethics Act and the Charter School Law to be completed annually for each trustee on the Board’s roster for that school year.

9. The Board of Trustees shall ensure that the dates, times, and locations of scheduled Board meetings are posted on the Charter School’s website and that any updates to the Board meeting schedule are posted timely. Furthermore, minutes from Board meetings shall be posted on the Charter School’s website within two weeks of approval by the Board of Trustees, but not later than after the conclusion of a second consecutive board meeting after each meeting, and shall remain posted for a minimum of one year from date of Board meeting.

10. The Board of Trustees agree that the Charter School shall participate in the School District’s charter school performance framework and monitoring system (“Charter School Performance Framework”) as set forth in Article X of the Charter;

and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Charter School has agreed to comply with certain conditions for renewal (“Conditions for Renewal”) based on the comprehensive renewal review by the [Charter Schools Office] as set forth below. Failure to comply with the Conditions for Renewal as set forth below may be a basis for revocation or nonrenewal of the Charter School’s Charter.

1. Prior to the execution of the Charter by the School District, the Charter School shall submit to the Charter Schools Office for review and approval the executed lease or sublease and information about renovations, maintenance, and financial responsibilities related to the Charter School’s use of the facilities at 1301 Belmont Avenue, Philadelphia, PA.

2. Prior to the execution of the Charter by the School District, the Charter School shall submit to the Charter Schools Office for review and approval the contract between the Charter School and the Charter School’s management company that accurately reflects all of the duties, services, obligations and liabilities of each party to the other with respect to the operation of the Charter School or services to be provided to the Charter School, including specific provisions on management fees, which shall be approved by the respective governing boards of each entity.

3. Prior to the execution of the Charter by the School District, the Charter School shall submit to the Charter Schools Office a list of the names and addresses of the board members of the Charter School which demonstrates that none of the voting board members of the Charter School serve on the board of Community Education Alliance of Pennsylvania or on the board of any entity with which the Charter School has a contractual agreement.

4. Prior to the execution of the Charter by the School District, the Charter School shall submit to the Charter Schools Office for review and approval evidence of alignment of all of the Charter School’s curricula for K-Grade 12 to Pennsylvania Core Standards;

and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED, the School District and Belmont acknowledge and agree that the Charter School will enroll a maximum of 780 students in Kindergarten through Grade 8 and a maximum of 500 students in Grade 9 through Grade 12 during the Term of the Charter, unless the parties agree in writing to other terms. Under no circumstances will the Charter School request payment from the School District or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for more students than set forth herein nor enroll students in different grades including Kindergarten, without Board of Education approval by action item; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED, that Belmont has agreed to the following provisions related to the School District’s Charter School Performance Framework:

1. The Charter School agrees to participate in the School District’s Charter School Performance Framework. The Charter School Performance Framework includes an annual assessment of the Charter School’s academic, financial, and organizational performance as well as compliance with Applicable Laws. Organizational performance includes, but is not limited to, a

2. The Charter School agrees to provide or allow to be provided to the School District and the Charter Schools Office all records, including student level academic performance, necessary to properly assess the academic success, organizational compliance and viability, and financial health and sustainability of the Charter School under the Charter School Performance Framework, timely and pursuant to Charter Schools Office procedures.

3. The Charter School acknowledges that achieving the performance objectives identified in the Charter School Performance Framework is critical to meeting the needs of public school students in Philadelphia. The Charter School shall actively monitor its own progress towards achieving objectives identified in the Charter School Performance Framework. The Charter Schools Office may also evaluate any or all of the performance domains – academic, organizational and financial – on an annual basis formally. If the Charter School continues to fail to meet standards for academic success, organizational compliance and viability, and/or financial health and sustainability, the Charter School Office review of the Charter School’s admissions and enrollment policies and practices, student discipline practices, special education programming, ELL programming, and Board of Trustees governance in order to assess compliance with the Charter and Applicable Laws, federal, state and local guidance, policies, and Charter Schools Office procedures. Financial performance includes, but is not limited to, a review of the Charter School’s financial health and long-term sustainability, and generally accepted standards of fiscal management. Office may recommend that the Board of Education commence revocation or nonrenewal proceedings against the Charter School.

4. During the Term of the Charter, the Charter Schools Office will limit changes to the Charter School Performance Framework applicable to the Charter School to those required by changes in Applicable Laws or by changes to charter school data availability. The Charter Schools Office will provide notice to charter schools in Philadelphia of any change to the Charter School Performance Framework prior to implementation of such change. The Charter Schools Office would use its best efforts to solicit feedback on changes from Philadelphia charter schools in advance of implementation of changes.

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