Pa. auditor general to audit Aspira charter schools

 

The Pennsylvania auditor general announced Tuesday that his office would begin an audit of the five charter schools operated by Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he decided to begin the audit of the four charter schools Aspira operates in Philadelphia and a statewide cyber charter based in the city ahead of schedule because of news reports that the organization had paid a former administrator $350,000 to settle a sexual-harassment complaint and lawsuit she had filed against Aspira president and CEO Alfredo Calderon.

DePasquale said that although he was troubled by all allegations of sexual harassment, his financial review was triggered because taxpayer funds paid for the insurance policy that was used to settle the case.

His office periodically examines public, charter, and cyber charter schools, but DePasquale said Aspira’s charters had not been scheduled for review until at least 2018-19.

He said he decided to tackle Aspira sooner after learning  details in the fall of  the settlement the organization’s insurance company had paid to Evelyn Nunez, Aspira’s former chief academic officer, to settle claims that Calderon had retaliated against her after she rejected his ”ongoing sexual advances.”

“That raised some eyebrows for us,” DePasquale said in a phone interview Tuesday.

His office will examine the schools’ management practices,  budgeting, leases, contracting, and grant oversight -- some of the same areas that the Philadelphia School District's charter office has questioned.

The Aspira schools blamed the audit on the organization’s opponents.

“We believe that the decision ... to conduct a limited review of our schools was prompted by opponents who have consistently attempted to serve their own political agendas by trying to damage Aspira’s reputation,” Nathan Cross, Aspira’s communications coordinator, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “Each of the five Aspira schools in question are audited annually by an independent accounting firm, and all of these audits – without exception – have resulted in ‘clean’ audit opinions.”

Cross said  Aspira would cooperate fully and welcomed the chance to show it operates schools “that uphold the law.”

Concerns about finances and management -- and Aspira's requests for time to resolve them -- have prompted the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to repeatedly delay voting  on new operating agreements for Olney High School and Stetson, a middle school in Kensington.

Both are once-troubled district schools that the SRC turned over to Aspira in 2010 and 2011 to convert to charters and overhaul their academics.

The charter office has said the two schools are entangled in a web of financial transactions, including payments and loans to Aspira, to each other, and to Aspira-related businesses.

The charter office has recommended that the SRC deny renewals for both schools. It also said that Aspira had failed to produce the dramatic academic turnarounds it had promised.

DePasquale said the issues raised by the district’s charter office reinforced his decision to examine Aspira’s charter schools. He said it would be the first time his office reviews an entire charter system run by a single management organization.

“We are conducting a combined review of these five charter schools operating under the same management company to be more efficient,” DePasquale said. “This process should save each school time and resources and avoid duplication, as well as reduce the cost associated with five separate audit engagements.”

He said he was not sure how long the audit would take.

“It will be an extensive process,” DePasquale said.

The review will examine the operations of the Aspira charter schools from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2016. Work is scheduled to begin Feb. 13.

In addition to Olney and Stetson, the other charter schools that will be examined are Aspira Bilingual Cyber and Eugenio Maria De Hostos, both in Olney, and Antonia Pantoja in North Philadelphia.  

Last May, City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a report that said his office found several problems with Aspira’s charter schools, such as questionable financial transactions among related entities, including loan guarantees; school-lease arrangements with parent organizations; and charter board members serving on boards with ties to the schools.