October 28 — 5:48 am, 2019

Board of Ed’s hesitance to revoke ASPIRA charters is a vote of no confidence in District schools

It was "shocking" that some board members seemed to favor a troubled charter organization rather than the school system they preside over.

Lisa Haver

ASPIRA supporters cheer for their charter schools at the Oct. 17 Board of Education meeting. (Photo: Bill Hangley)

The Oct. 17 school board meeting looked to be the last stop on a runaway train, a failed experiment that had misdirected hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars over the last nine years. The Board of Education — after multiple annual evaluations, 16 days of legal hearings, and seemingly indefinite postponements — would take the final vote to deny renewal to ASPIRA Olney and ASPIRA Stetson Renaissance charters.

The Charter Schools Office (CSO) recommended non-renewal in 2016 after the schools failed to meet standards. This year, the CSO made the same recommendation after the schools failed to make the necessary improvements. Hearing examiner Rudolph Garcia, having presided over those legal hearings and reviewed the testimony of numerous witnesses and more than 250 documents, echoed the recommendation for non-renewal.

ASPIRA’s transgressions had been well documented over the last six years. The Daily News reported on phony contractor invoices and violations of the Labor Relations Act. Both Fox 29 and the Inquirer told of the many sexual harassment lawsuits brought against Aspira CEO Alfredo Calderon, one settled for more than $300,000.  Notebook stories examined Aspira’s financial mismanagement, ethics violations, and low academic performance.

The City Paper analyzed Aspira’s political connections.

City and State PA questioned the School Reform Commission’s many postponements in light of the company’s substandard performance across the board.  And last year, Pennsylvania Auditor Anthony DePasquale held a news conference to shine a light on ASPIRA’s fraudulent activities.

During this time, members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools continued to speak out about ASPIRA issues in testimony to the SRC and the Board, to report on hearings, and to write letters asking when the new board would schedule new hearings.

Given the overwhelming evidence, there was little doubt about the outcome of the board vote on the action items. The District had already begun making transition plans. Board member Christopher McGinley made a motion to deny renewal, and Wayne Walker seconded.

Then the hand-wringing began.

Board member Maria McColgan began by asking whether “the gains” that the schools had made could be maintained under District control, just before acknowledging that the schools’ academic ratings were “terrible.” In fact, all CSO evaluations since the schools’ first years of operation show that there were little to no gains and that, in fact, as McGinley pointed out later, ASPIRA achieved nothing close to the “dramatic change” promised when contracted to run the two Renaissance charters.

Board member Mallory Fix Lopez confessed that despite the ongoing fiscal mismanagement, she was “super-conflicted.” She stated that “in the current situation,” she didn’t know whether the District could provide the same level of support. She did not explain what she meant. District Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson has testified on many occasions, including just last week, that the District’s finances are as stable as they have been in years.

Board member Angela McIver added that she was also “incredibly conflicted” because she remembered “what Olney was like” before the ASPIRA takeover compared to the climate that the parents, brought in to testify by ASPIRA, had described at this meeting. Board President Joyce Wilkerson had to interrupt Julia Danzy to tell her that it was “not an appropriate line of questioning” to ask whether ASPIRA could “allow” the District to work with them if given “more time.”

Fortunately, Wilkerson and McGinley had read and understood Garcia’s report. McGinley reminded fellow board members that two separate CSO teams, in 2016 and 2019, had recommended non-renewal and that Garcia, the hearing officer, had also found the “same low academic performance, lack of adherence to acceptable fiscal management, and lack of organizational competence.” Wilkerson stated that she could not endorse “a school that is failing the academic aspirations of children.” After more agonizing, the board voted 8-1 to deny renewal, with Fix Lopez dissenting.

The conflicted board members’ remarks reflect a deep ignorance of the history of the ASPIRA debacle and the company’s failures as a Renaissance charter school operator. They seemed to accept as established fact the testimony of parents and staff presented about the schools’ services, without citing any specific program or report. It certainly raised questions about whether they had read the multiple CSO reports since 2016 or Garcia’s report.

Beyond the initial willingness to look the other way at ASPIRA’s many offenses, the statements of those board members amount to a vote of no confidence in the School District of Philadelphia. It was shocking to hear the board members suggest that it was preferable to have an organization with documented violations of the charter law and mediocre academic performance continue to manage public schools than to have the system they oversee take it back.

The board members who have lost faith in the public school system, or perhaps never had any, should step aside so that Mayor Kenney, in his second term, can appoint Philadelphians who will express confidence in the District they have been entrusted to serve.

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS).

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