In light of concerns over Aspira's finances and borrowing practices, parents and education advocates are fighting the district's efforts to give Aspira control of Marin, a struggling K-8 school on 3rd Street near Westmoreland in North Philadelphia.
"They are trying to pay off their debt by consuming new schools," said Cheryl Buckley, who has three children at Marin. "The more students they get, the better the chance they got to paying off their debt."
To date, district reports show that:
* Two Aspira-run schools, Antonia Pantoja and Eugenio Maria de Hostos, had operating deficits of $235,415 and $52,864 respectively last spring, before the district renewed their contracts for five more years.
* One school, John B. Stetson, owes $578,547 to Hostos as of June 2012, while three others - Hostos, Olney and Aspira Bilingual Cyber Charter - owe $89,000 to Pantoja.
* Pantoja is the guarantor of a $5.4 million loan issued to Aspira Community Enterprises, a related entity that owns the property that Pantoja leases.
Hostos, meanwhile, is the guarantor of a $1.9 million loan to Aspira for the acquisition and construction of the building Hostos leases. Under the terms of both loans, if Aspira defaults, the schools are on the hook for the debt.
Although one expert stopped short of calling the lending and borrowing practices illegal, she said they raised red flags about Aspira's finances and those of the schools it manages.
The loans are "concerning," said Susan DeJarnett, a professor at the Temple University Beasley School of Law who has written extensively on charter-school law. "Unless the district has a really good handle on the board making the decisions about [the schools], I would want a clear explanation of why there is so much money moving around," she said.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said officials were reviewing Aspira's finances as part of the Renaissance schools process and would be able to provide a "fully informed opinion of the organization's finances after that review."
As for the district's recommendation that Marin be turned over to Aspira, he said: "We based our decision on the work that Aspira has done with other schools. They are turning [schools] around and improving them."
Calls to Aspira - a national organization with a Pennsylvania affiliate based here - were not returned yesterday.
But Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who supports Aspira, said: "Aspira's Puerto Rican heritage and dual-language programs is a match for the goals of Marin. The Marin profile is the profile of an Aspira school, culturally and linguistically. "
She dismissed allegations that Aspira is mishandling money.
"I have no reason to believe that there's any mismanagement based on the auditing reports," she said. If funds are being moved around as part of its accounting practices, then "every single entity that I know does that," she added.
Under the district's Renaissance Charter Initiative, it transfers control of low-performing schools, such as Marin and Edward T. Steel Elementary in Nicetown, to outside charter managers in an effort to turn them around.
Parents get to vote on whether they want their school to remain in the hands of the district, or whether they want it converted to a charter school. However, the School Reform Commission has the final say.
Marin parents were set to vote today, but the vote was postponed until June 5. That sparked allegations that Aspira learned that parents would vote against the charter conversion so the operator asked the district to delay the vote to give it time to get parents to come on board.
The district's progress report for Renaissance schools, which is what Marin would become, shows that reading and math scores at Olney and Stetson improved under Aspira. It is unclear how the other three charters performed.
Meanwhile, in the state's new school-performance profile - made up of graduation rates, standardized tests, academic growth and attendance during the 2012-13 school year - three Aspira-run schools failed to receive a passing score of 60, while two others exceeded the mark.
Those scores included: Olney, 53; Stetson, 57; Pantoja, 65; Hostos, 75; and Aspira Bilingual Cyber Charter, 29.
The scores do not indicate where performance scores have improved or worsened in the schools since Aspira assumed control of them.
Susan Gobreski, executive director of the advocacy group Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said the district "needs to be exceptionally cautious" with charter schools that have concerns and problems.
"I would hope the district wants to be sure things are squeaky clean," she said. "The district situation is too tenuous to do anything that is risky or that can shake people's confidence in district decision making."
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