Pa. Supreme Court enters dispute over SRC powers

Posted: May 18, 2014

The state Supreme Court has granted a temporary restraining order that bars the Philadelphia School Reform Commission from taking action against a charter school.

It marks the first time the top court has entered the dispute over the powers the commission has to ignore state law in order to protect its finances by managing charter enrollment.

On Thursday, the court approved West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School's request to decide whether the law that led to the state takeover of the district in 2001 permits the SRC to suspend parts of other laws to deal with the district's financial crisis.

The SRC has threatened to revoke West Philadelphia Achievement's charter because the school has refused to sign a new agreement that includes an enrollment cap.

The court directed both sides to submit briefs that address whether the takeover law that created the SRC is constitutional and whether it is legal for the SRC to ignore parts of the state School Code and other laws to crack down on charters.

Oral arguments are scheduled in September for a case that could have repercussions for all 86 charters in the city and could define the authority of the five-member commission.

"We are very pleased and very happy that our legal system is working in favor of upholding the law and trying to right the wrongs done by a desperate school district," Stacy R. Gill-Phillips, West Philadelphia Achievement's chief executive, said Friday.

Robert W. O'Donnell, the charter's lead attorney, added, "If we are successful across the board, it would eliminate the notion that the School District can suspend provisions of the school code."

He said that with its order Thursday, the Supreme Court "cleared away the usual debris" of procedural steps to schedule arguments for the fall.

"They are very clear they want to address the substance of this," O'Donnell said.

SRC Chairman Bill Green and a district spokeswoman declined to comment because the case is active.

The court's action comes as the SRC has sought to exercise special powers to rein in rising charter costs and deal with an unprecedented financial crisis.

A total of 67,315 city students attend charters. 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 SRC also waived a section that allows charters to bill the state Department of Education if a district refuses to pay for additional students. The department deducts the amount from the district's state funding.

West Philadelphia Achievement is challenging both actions, as well as a charter-oversight policy the SRC adopted last month that includes other heightened powers.

The school, at 6701 Callowhill St., has been operating without a signed charter since 2011, when the SRC voted to renew the school's operating charter but limited enrollment to 400 students. The school, which opened in 2001, has more than 600 and has been receiving payment for the additional students from the state.

Gill-Phillips said her school told the district it would agree to an enrollment maximum for the next five years - but not one that would require it to jettison 250 students.

"We hope this legal venture will allow us to get this settled," she said during an interview about the court's order.

Filed in March, the West Philadelphia Achievement petition is one of two cases pending in the state Supreme Court that asks the justices to determine whether the SRC is permitted to suspend state law in a financial crisis.

The SRC has asked the court to declare that the state takeover law empowers the SRC to impose work rule changes, including filling teacher vacancies in the fall without regard to seniority.

The state Education Department has backed the SRC's position. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has asked to have the case tossed.

The court has not scheduled arguments in that case.


comments powered by Disqus