Education advocates call for investigation of Philly charter schools

ASPIRA Olney Charter High School – from ASPIRA website

ASPIRA Olney Charter High School – from ASPIRA website

The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, an educational advocacy group, has called for the city’s Inspector General and Chief Integrity Officer, Board of Ethics and the Mayor’s office to investigate the relationship between School Reform Commission members and the troubled ASPIRA charter school organization.

The charter operator has been flagged by the School District of Philadelphia’s charter office for repeated academic and financial failings, but has remained in operation for more than a year due to the repeated postponement of a charter renewal vote. 

The letter accuses School Reform Commission members of engaging in a “private appeals process” to benefit the charter at the public’s expense. 

APPS member Lisa Haver accused SRC members Bill Green and Sylvia Simms in particular  of colluding with school operators to keep the school in operation through “ex parte” negotiations held outside of SRC meetings

“The School District charter office’s own reports recommended nonrenewal,” she said. “They’re working it out behind closed doors. It’s a violation of public trust.”

Haver said that Green and Simms had formed “a voting bloc” bent on keeping ASPIRA running in spite of its failing record at Olney High School and Stetson Middle School, which the operator took over four and five years ago, respectively. 

But the five-member board has been repeatedly deadlocked on whether or not to terminate the school’s charter, in part because SRC member Farah Jimenez has recused herself from votes related to Olney. Her spouse, Kleinbard lawyer David Hyman, has a financial interest related to that school.

ASPIRA has faced years of public criticism related to its takeover of the former public schools, from sliding graduation rates to administrators feuding with faculty over unionization efforts. More recently, the school earned headlines for a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and teacher layoffs.

Green did not deny that he and Simms had met privately with school officials, but he laughed off the idea that his board or the school itself should or would be investigated. 

“The school can meet with any two SRC officials. It just can’t be three,” he said, explaining that school codes only prohibited ex parte communications with a quorum, or majority, of members. “There simply aren’t three votes to terminate their charter.”

But Green also defended ASPIRA, in spite of its tarnished reputation, adding that there was a plan in place to quickly stabilize the troubled charter operator that superseded the district’s own recommendation to revoke the charter.

“I believe they [ASPIRA] serve a particular need in that community,” Green said. “They’re going to do a refinancing and change their governance. I imagine if they can’t resolve that within 30 days, I would consider voting not to renew.”

Unusually, that refinancing plan was drawn up by lawyer and former mayoral candidate Ken Trujillo, who appeared at recent SRC meetings stating that he had been retained by ASPIRA as “oversight counsel.” In testimony at a recent board meeting Trujillo described a “cross collateralization” plan that would insulate the schools from debt accrued by the charter operator nonprofit, ASPIRA, Inc.

SRC member Feather Houston expressed concerns that a debt collateralization plan would be enough to fix the ailing schools. But Green said that the attempt was a preferable outcome for parents and students compared to outright closure.

He said he suspected that the Alliance’s letters were politically motivated.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were on the [Philadelphia Federation of Teacher]’s payroll,” he said. “Haver is a shill for the PFT. I’m a shill for students and their parents.”

An APPS member said the group is not funded by the PFT.

Chief Integrity Officer Ellen Kaplan said her office did not have standing to investigate charter schools. But ironically, Green had previously crafted a memorandum of understanding between Inspector General Amy Kurland and the district specifically empowering the IG’s office to do so.

Kurland said she had not reviewed the letter as of press time.