Threatened charter school fights back, hard

Posted: May 17, 2014

A Philadelphia charter school has launched a three-front attack on the School Reform Commission's efforts to shut it down.

The Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School has started a national petition drive on Moveon.org to try to save the school. A mother of two of its students has sued the commission, contending that its "vindictive and illegal" process disregards parts of the state school code.

And this week, the school asked a Common Pleas Court judge for an emergency injunction to halt a June 2 hearing on the school's fate on the ground that the SRC is skirting state law.

The SRC's April 24 vote to suspend Palmer Leadership's charter came just three days after the judge had ruled that the commission overstepped its legal authority when it sought to cap enrollment at Palmer and four other institutions.

"We expect the Palmer school to be open a long time," Matthew H. Haverstick, one of the school's lawyers, said Thursday.

Raven Hill, a district spokeswoman, declined to comment on the cases.

The flurry of documents is the most recent development in the SRC's years-long dispute with Palmer Leadership and other charters over controlling student enrollment.

District officials have said that because of excessive enrollments in part, the cash-starved system could spend nearly $700 million - $25 million more than budgeted - by the end of June.

For example, the district maintains that Palmer Leadership should have no more than 675 students at its campuses in Northern Liberties and Frankford. The school has nearly 1,300, and Palmer Leadership has insisted it is entitled to have the additional students under state law.

Citing a new policy on charter schools, the SRC voted last month to begin the process of suspending Palmer Leadership's charter, alleging poor academic performance, financial problems and billing the district for students who longer attend.

The commission scheduled an expedited revocation hearing for June 2, and said it would not send money to the school after July 1.

The commission has said the law that led to the state takeover of the district in 2001 gives the SRC the power to suspend some parts of state law because the district is in financial distress.

But the SRC's position is being challenged.

In an opinion filed April 21, Common Pleas Court Judge Gary S. Glazer said the state takeover law did not give the SRC the authority to cap charter enrollment or disregard parts of the law to ease the district's financial woes.

Last week, the SRC asked the judge to reconsider and clarify his decision.

Palmer Leadership asked Glazer on Monday for an injunction to prevent the SRC from carrying out its plans to revoke the charter.

It says the SRC's "sudden and unilateral" move against it would cause irreparable harm to the school.

"Once again," the school says in its filing, the district has attempted to disregard state law designed to protect charters "in the sole interest of advancing its own political agenda."

The petition notes that the state's 1997 charter law does not mention charter suspensions or expedited hearings, and permits a district to revoke a charter only for a narrow list of reasons.

In a separate case, Saleema Todd, who has two sons at Palmer Leadership, says the "lawless suspension" of the school's charter would harm her sons' education and disrupt their 2014-15 academic year.

Todd's suit, filed May 5, also charges that the SRC's actions violate her sons' civil rights, including those guaranteed by the Pennsylvania constitution for a public education.

Palmer, a lawyer, educator, and community organizer who founded the school in 2000, has alleged that the district's move to revoke the charter is a punitive response to his school's legal challenges to the SRC's attempts to cap charter enrollment.


martha.woodall@phillynews.com

215-854-2789

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