Charter lawsuit challenges SRC suspension of School Code

Posted: March 15, 2014

A charter school is taking aim at the Philadelphia School Reform Commission's efforts to rein in soaring charter costs.

The West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School has asked the state Supreme Court to rule that the SRC illegally suspended parts of the state School Code covering charters and to bar the commission from moving to close those that refuse to limit enrollment.

And in a direct challenge to the SRC's authority, the charter has asked the court to find that the law that led to the state takeover of the district in 2001 and created the SRC is unconstitutional.

The outcome could have repercussions for the district and all 86 charter schools in the city.

West Philadelphia Achievement wants an immediate and permanent injunction to nullify the SRC's recent code suspensions covering charters and to bar it from adopting a proposed policy that details new charter-oversight powers.

The complaint, filed last week by lead attorney Robert W. O'Donnell, calls the draft policy "a wholesale rewriting" of the charter school law. The Supreme Court has sole jurisdiction over challenges to the takeover law.

Stacy R. Gill-Phillips, West Philadelphia Achievement's chief executive, said the suit "was our last resort."

The school at 6701 Callowhill St. has been operating without a signed charter since 2011, when the SRC renewed its charter but limited enrollment to 400 students. The school, which opened in 2001, has more than 600.

Gill-Phillips said Thursday she understands the district's fiscal woes and wants its schools to survive "but not at the expense of the children who are currently thriving in charter schools."

She added: "We would expect an [enrollment] limit, a reasonable cap. But it can't be under what we currently have, because we have to be able to pay our mortgage and pay our teachers."

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said the School District does not comment on lawsuits.

The suit comes amid rising tensions over the SRC's attempts to control charter growth as the district grapples with massive financial problems.

A total of 67,315 city students attend charters. Under the state's latest calculations, the district pays the charters $8,419 per student, $22,312 for those who receive special-education services.

Officials say the district expects to spend $700 million on charter payments through June, about $25 million more than budgeted. One reason for the higher bills is that charters have enrolled 1,600 more students than permitted in their agreements.

After the SRC suspended parts of the School Code in August, the district began threatening to revoke charters for schools that refuse to sign agreements because they contain enrollment caps.

The commission also waived a section that allows charters to bill the state Department of Education when a district refuses to pay for additional students. The department deducts the amount from the district's state funding.

In its complaint, West Philadelphia Achievement says that the 1998 law that led to the state takeover violates the state constitution because it allows an unelected SRC to suspend "at will" parts of the School Code without providing any standards "to guide" the suspensions.

The suit contends this amounts to "an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority," because only the legislature has the power to enact law.


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