SRC approves budget, fails again to vote on charters

Former City Solicitor Ken Trujillo works for Aspira, whose deal to operate charters was recommended for nonrenewal. The SRC did not act on the recommendation.

The School Reform Commission Thursday night adopted a $2.8 billion budget for the 2016-17 academic year that includes a modest surplus, but hefty expenditure increases for charter schools and employee pensions.

The commission also once again put off taking action on the fates of two charters run by Aspira Inc., the North Philadelphia-based Latino education nonprofit.

The five-member school district governing body had been expected to act on a recommendation from its charter staff not to renew Aspira's contract.

Instead, commission members voted to table the non-renewal resolutions, saying they needed more time to assess Aspira's stewardship of Olney Charter High School and John B. Stetson Charter School.

This marked the third time the commission delayed voting on the Aspira schools. Last week it also failed to take action on staff's recommendation not to renew the operating agreements of two charter schools run by Universal Companies.

Officials from the charter-school office have told the commission Aspira should be ousted from managing its schools due to a host of financial, governance, and academic problems.

At last week's meeting, former City Solicitor Ken Trujillo introduced himself as Aspira's newly hired oversight counsel charged with straightening out the organization's affairs.

The commission gave him until Thursday's meeting to come up with a plan. Trujillo attended the meeting but did not speak.

A number a speakers denounced the commission for giving Trujillo and Aspira what they saw as deference.

"The only conclusion to be reached at this point is that the SRC will do anything to make sure that once they give away a public school to a charter company, the community will never get it back," retired teacher Lisa Haver said.

Andrea Gonzalez Kirwin, superintendent of Aspira's schools, said that during the last year her organization has brought to the two schools new teacher supports and coaching models and a new curriculum.

"I'm here to tell you that change is taking place, needed change," she said. "I see this organization, these schools and our scholars on the cusp of achieving so much."

The school district's operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is slight decrease from this year's, about $3 billion, which received a boost from a late infusion of state funds. The 2016-17 budget includes $121 million more for charters and $35 million additional for employee-pension payments, school district financial chief Uri Monson said.

Charter-related expenditures increased from 18 percent of the budget in 2011 to a projected 31 percent; while retirement contributions are expected to grow by 18.7 percent, officials said.

On the revenue side of the ledger, the school district anticipates receiving $56 million more in basic education and special education funding from the state, $15.2 million more in city real estate tax revenue and $22.2 million more in pension reimbursements, officials said.

The majority of the school district's funding, just over $1.5 billion, comes from the state, $1.275 billion from local coffers, and $12 million from federal and other sources.

Despite the highly publicized financial challenges in recent years that resulted in school closures and teacher layoffs, school officials projected that the new budget year will end with a $100 million surplus - which would fund about two week's worth of school operations, Monson said.

The budget provides funding for at least one counselor and one nurse per school.

But all is not rosy, Monson cautioned. With expenditures growing at nearly twice the rate of revenues, the district is projected to face a negative fund balance by fiscal 2019 of $137 million, and nearly $600 million by 2021, Monson said.

Regarding the cost and growth of charter schools, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale earlier this month released a study calling for the state to do more to help the school district pay for them, while calling on the district to expand its oversight capacity of the schools.

He noted that despite the district's charter school costs being nearly 30 percent of its total expenditures in 2013-14, less than 1 percent of the budget was dedicated to the system's charter school office.

deanm@phillynews.com

215-854-4172 @mensahdean