Charters founded by Brown seek renewals

Posted: January 17, 2014

PHILADELPHIA The Philadelphia School Reform Commission is expected to vote Thursday night on several charter school matters, including the renewals of two charters founded by Dorothy June Brown.

The district staff has recommended five-year renewals for Laboratory and Planet Abacus Charter Schools provided they meet several conditions, including severing most ties to Brown.

Last week, jurors in Brown's federal fraud trial acquitted the veteran educator of six counts and deadlocked on 54 others.

Jurors said the panel was split, 9-3, in favor of convicting Brown of defrauding Laboratory, Planet Abacus, and two other charters she founded of a total of $6.5 million, and then participating in a cover-up.

Prosecutors said they intend to retry Brown on the deadlocked counts. U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick is scheduled to meet with prosecutors and Brown's lawyers Jan. 24.

The district put the Planet Abacus and Laboratory renewals on hold in July 2012 after a federal grand jury indicted Brown and four others.

Laboratory has campuses in Northern Liberties, Overbrook, and Wynnefield, while Planet Abacus is in Tacony.

Before the indictments, draft reports showed that the district's charter school office had recommended against renewing the charters of the two academically successful K-8 schools over concerns about their finances, administration, and admission practices.

Now that the charter boards have made corrections, the district is recommending that the SRC renew both charters.

Among other things, the charter boards said they have terminated all contracts with Brown except for preexisting agreements to provide her medical benefits and pay some lease costs. The charters' chief executives have offices at Main Line Academy, a private school for special-needs students that Brown runs in Bala Cynwyd.

In addition, Planet Abacus also rents its building from Main Line. Its board said the school is now renting on a month-to-month basis at a "commercially reasonable" rate while it looks for a new facility.

Both boards also have agreed to review past decisions to pay some legal costs for Brown and her codefendants.

Two of Brown's codefendants, Michael A. Slade Jr. and Courteney L. Knight, were acquitted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges on Dec. 19.

Two other former administrators pleaded guilty, testified against Brown, and are awaiting sentencing.

The resolution to renew Planet Abacus went before the SRC in November but failed to muster the three votes necessary to pass. Commissioner Feather O. Houstoun, who voted no, said she was troubled by the lack of information available to the public on the school's website.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard on Wednesday said Planet Abacus had improved its website.

The agenda for the SRC's monthly action meeting also calls for the commission to vote on renewing the charter of a school affiliated with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 that was involved in a recent cheating scandal, and to revoke the charter of the troubled Arise Academy in West Oak Lane, the nation's first charter for students in foster care.

The Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter High School in Center City has agreed to hire an independent testing monitor to oversee all standardized testing. The charter also has promised to submit a test-monitoring plan to the district by the end of the month.

Last year, the state Department of Education suspended a former assistant principal's supervisory credentials to settle allegations that he violated protocols for the handling of state tests.

The district staff will recommend that the SRC revoke Arise's charter because of financial, academic, and management problems. The district said Arise had low test scores, overbilled the district for more than $211,000, and failed to make improvements it had promised to implement by September 2013.


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