SRC votes for Universal to run Creighton Elementary as a charter

Creighton Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia. Associated Press, file
Creighton Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia. Associated Press, file
Posted: June 03, 2012

The School Reform Commission voted Friday to turn Creighton Elementary into a charter school run by Universal Cos. Inc.

In doing so, it rejected a proposal from Creighton teachers who wanted to turn the school around themselves. Officials said they were interested in the plan, but were ultimately unconvinced the teachers could effectively overhaul the school beginning in September.

The Northeast K-8 school's advisory council had initially selected the teacher-led proposal as its first turnaround choice, but some members have switched camps in recent weeks.

Teacher Regina Feighan-Drach, lead author of the proposal, on Friday accused Universal, the Kenny Gamble-led nonprofit, of "unethical tactics" to "sway and rally our SAC members to support them."

She spoke of what she described as a "scare-and-bribe" dinner - she was present - at which Universal urged parents and SAC members to support its charter proposal.

Another parent, Cocoa Lee, said that Universal representatives told attendees at the May dinner that "the School District was not going to have any money" for Creighton and that advisory council members of other Universal schools said "they were given their own room, laptops, and they were taken out to lavish dinners" often. Lee also attended the dinner.

Some parents disputed the notion that Universal had acted inappropriately.

Lillian English-Hentz, a council member who was also at the dinner, said she was appalled at the suggestion she was bribed. She said she supported teachers, but was upset at the divisive atmosphere at the school.

She said she was motivated by one thing. "I want opportunities for my grandson," English-Hentz said.

Ernest Miller, another council member who now favors Universal, agreed that "there was no underhandedness."

He suggested that the teachers were concerned about "their jobs, not our children."

Some raised questions about whether Universal, which uses an Afro-centric curriculum, could appropriately educate the school's diverse population of about 740 students. Universal officials said that they "celebrate diversity" and that while most of their schools are heavily African American, one - Vare - has a sizable Asian population.

Responding to a question from Commissioner Feather O. Houstoun, Thomas Darden, the official in charge of the charter office, disclosed that the district had just reached an agreement with Universal on outstanding "licensing fees" for two other former district schools run by Universal since September.

Universal will not pay to use Audenried High and Vare Middle School buildings this year, Darden said, because the schools' small size means the company does not have enough money to pay rent and to effectively overhaul education. Audenried is a virtually new $55 million facility.

Now, Universal will pay $500,000 annually - $300,000 to use Audenried and $200,000 for Vare. The district will still have to subsidize some of the cost of maintenance services and utilities.

Asked if the district - which has a $218 million budget gap for the 2012-13 school year and had to cut $700 million from its budget this current year - was concerned about giving Universal a free pass, Darden said it was.

But, he said, Universal officials "believed they had negotiated an understanding with the prior administration," Arlene C. Ackerman's, to use the schools rent-free.

And "there literally is no cash available to pay the licensing fee" and "execute the kind of turnaround that we want," Darden said.

The vote to turn Creighton over to Universal was 4-0, with Commissioner Wendell Pritchett absent.

"I find this to be a very difficult one," Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky said before he voted yes. "I very much admire the fact that the teachers have come forward with a proposal here."

But ultimately, the proposal wasn't enough, Dworetzky said, and doing nothing wasn't an option.

After the vote was taken, some teachers and parents wept and hugged.

Feighan-Drach said she was disappointed, especially given the fact that a venture capitalist had come forward in recent days and offered to create an advisory council for the teachers and help with training and financial stewardship.

"They took a whole opportunity," Feighan-Drach said, "and wiped it away for Philadelphia."

Universal spokesman Devon Allen said in a statement that the company was pleased by the SRC's decision and "proud to welcome the parents, students, and staff to the Universal family of schools."

Allen declined to comment on the Audenried and Vare matter until the formal agreement was signed.

Universal currently runs one free-standing charter and four district turnarounds - Audenried, Vare, Bluford, and Daroff.

The SRC at its Friday meeting also approved a five-year renewal for the Eastern University Academy Charter School. Dworetzky voted against the renewal, in part because he did not think there was enough data to support it.


Contact Kristen Graham

at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly

School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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