At fiery meeting, SRC moves to revoke charter schools' status

Margarita Medrano , a teacher at Muñoz Marin Elementary School, and Warren Warden, father of two children there, express their views at the SRC meeting at School District headquarters. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Margarita Medrano , a teacher at Muñoz Marin Elementary School, and Warren Warden, father of two children there, express their views at the SRC meeting at School District headquarters. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 26, 2014

PHILADELPHIA At the end of a marathon meeting, the School Reform Commission voted late Thursday night to begin the process of suspending the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners School's charter. It also adopted a new charter policy and renewed the charters of several schools.

Four commissioners supported the resolution to begin shutdown proceedings for Palmer. Commissioner Sylvia Simms voted no, but did not explain why. Commissioner Farah Jimenez said she voted yes only reluctantly.

The charter policy passed by a 4-1 margin, as well. Commissioner Feather Houstoun voted no, she said, because she believes having the charter office report directly to the SRC is problematic. Houstoun said the office should remain under the superintendent's purview.

The SRC granted five-year renewals to Mariana Bracetti, Global Leadership Academy, Franklin Towne and Philadelphia Montessori Charter Schools. It put off a vote on the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School.

While the school is a top academic performer, commissioners expressed concerns about Performing Arts' student body, which does not reflect the diversity of the South Philadelphia neighborhood it sits in or the city at large. They said they want a written plan for how the school plans to improve diversity before they grant a charter renewal.

The meeting ended close to midnight, more than six hours after it began. By that time, the hundreds who had packed the SRC room had dwindled to a few dozen.

Earlier in the evening, the SRC heard from community members fighting to keep their traditional public schools from being turned over to charters.

Parents at Muñoz Marin and Steel Elementary Schools will vote next week whether to align with ASPIRA of Pa. and Mastery Charter Schools Inc., respectively.

It was a wild meeting, with hundreds crammed into the Philadelphia School District's main auditorium - booing, cheering, waving signs, shouting at SRC members during a marathon session. Testimony was still being given late Thursday, and the board had not voted on any of the proposals.

The suspension and ultimate revocation of Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School was one hot topic.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said earlier in the week he would recommend that the SRC close the school, which has campuses in Northern Liberties and Frankford, at the end of the year because of academic, financial, and management problems.

This unprecedented step - the SRC has never suspended a charter - drew fury from the Palmer Leadership community, which packed City Council earlier in the day and appealed passionately to the commission to halt the planned shutdown.

Walter D. Palmer, the school's founder, said he was blindsided by the decision. He noted that the school educates poor and minority children, and said it was working through problems, including billing the district for students it no longer educated.

He vowed to fight any SRC moves to shut the school down.

"I'm 80 years old," he said. "I will fight to the day I die."

SRC Chairman Bill Green noted that for the vast majority of its students - 85 percent - their neighborhood district school outperforms Palmer Leadership academically.

City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell told the SRC she thought the move to shut Palmer was unfair.

"We are very upset to hear about the closing of a charter school out of the clear blue," said Blackwell, suggesting that the district was going after the school because it was embroiled in legal wrangling with it over students whom Palmer has enrolled over its cap.

The new charter policy the SRC considered is key to the Palmer Leadership shutdown process. It is based on heightened powers of oversight the SRC has claimed through several recent suspensions of state charter law to deal with the district's continuing financial crisis. The commission moved ahead even though a Common Pleas Court judge this week said the SRC had no authority to suspend parts of the charter law.

The policy gives the SRC increased ability to revoke charters and turn down applications to expand or renew charters on grounds of poor academic performance, financial problems, or enrolling more students than allowed in their operating agreements. It shifts the district's charter-school office from reporting to the superintendent to reporting to the SRC.

And in a new twist, once a school has exhausted its revocation appeals, the policy gives the SRC the option of handing the school over to another nonprofit to operate, to minimize disruption for students and their families.

The document also includes a new section that would allow the SRC to suspend a charter and stop making payments until problems are resolved or the charter is revoked. Suspensions are not mentioned in the state charter law.

This year, 67,315 students attend charter schools. Most of them attend the 86 schools in the city, although nearly 7,000 are enrolled in cyber charter schools.

Those numbers would grow if Steel and Muñoz Marin are converted to charters under the district's Renaissance process, which rids the district of struggling schools and gives them to charters to improve.

Parents, teachers, and students said they felt the deck was stacked against the schools remaining in the district. Officials have said they will spend millions if the schools become charters, but will not allocate significant new resources if they remain in the district.

"I am not anti-charter," parent Nikki Smith-Bagby said. "I am anti this process."

The five charters the SRC was poised to renew were: Franklin Towne, Global Leadership Academy, Mariana Bracetti, Philadelphia Montessori, and Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter schools.

kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

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