SRC votes to shut a troubled Philly charter, starts process for 2 more

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The Philadelphia School District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.

The School Reform Commission voted Thursday night to shut one troubled charter school, and also moved to yank the charters of two schools run by Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania.

Citing shaky finances and poor academics, the SRC said it would close Khepera Charter School in North Philadelphia. The vote came after days of hearings and a lengthy report by a hearing officer recommending closure.

Khepera will remain open through the end of the academic year, and could stay open longer if the school chooses to fight the closure in Harrisburg.

Before the vote, Khepera officials acknowledged the school has had problems, but said they were being corrected.

Racine Carbitt, the school’s chief financial officer, suggested that mismanagement by a vendor was responsible for much of the school’s trouble. She and Norris Bacon, the school’s new CEO and principal, asked for leniency.

“Even under the threat of revocation,” Bacon said, “parents would rather have their children attend Khepera Charter School than attend their neighborhood school.”

Because of Khepera’s severe financial problems, the last academic year ended early for the school’s 450 K-8 students.

And nearly two years after it first considered the fate of John B. Stetson Charter School in Kensington and Olney Charter High School, the SRC finally voted to not renew both schools, which are run by the well-known Latino community organization. Non-renewal is the first step in a lengthy legal process that culminates in an organization’s losing its charter.

Stetson, with 891 students in grades 5-8, and Olney, with 1,790 students in grades 9-12, are former struggling district schools that the SRC turned over to Aspira in hope of rapid academic turnarounds under the district’s “Renaissance Schools” model.

But the commission said Aspira fell far short of its academic goals, and also had problems with finances and management. The SRC had repeatedly delayed voting on Olney and Stetson to give Aspira more time to solve its issues.

Philadelphia School District officials said both schools’ situations had grown worse.

Test scores at both schools were even lower in 2016-17 than in 2015-16, when the charter office first recommended against  renewing the five-year agreements with Aspira.

Aspira students underperformed district schools, schools with similar demographics, and other charters, officials said.

Just 12 percent of students at Stetson were on grade level in English last year and fewer than 3 percent were on grade level in math. At Olney, 17 percent of the students passed state algebra I exams; 21 percent passed state literature exams.

The fiscal difficulties that have plagued both schools became worse. And the district’s charter office said the entangled web of financial transactions, including payments and loans to Aspira and Aspira-related enterprises that had been flagged earlier, continued.

The schools are listed as guarantors on debts of Aspira and its related entities.

And the money Stetson paid to Aspira for maintenance, security, technology, and other services ballooned from $1.1 million in the 2015 fiscal year to $3 million in the last school year, the district said. That amount was on top of the $428,476 Stetson paid Aspira in charter-management fees.

DawnLynne Kacer, the chief of the district’s charter schools office, said that overall, Aspira took 28 percent of money paid for Stetson and Olney in administrative costs, compared to an average of 5 percent to 11 percent for other charter operators. Aspira said the district’s calculations were incorrect.

In addition to Stetson and Olney, Aspira has two other charters — Antonia Pantoja and Eugenio Maria de Hostos — that are up for renewal this year. Aspira also operates a cyber charter that enrolls students from across the state.

In February, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced that his office would conduct a special performance audit of Aspira’s five charter schools after learning that the Latino 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. The results of that audit are expected early next year.

Stetson and Olney students and parents made strong appeals for their schools, which they said had improved under Aspira.

Adelaida Morales, a Stetson parent, said that students and parents need Aspira “because they understand our community.”

James Thompson, the principal of Olney, said that the school was working on some issues, but that academics have improved.

“We are absolutely the best option for our students,” Thompson said.

The Olney and Stetson votes were 4-1, with Commissioner Farah Jimenez against the non-renewal vote. She said she would have supported a renewal with strict conditions.

Aspira officials, in a statement, said the district was ignoring the progress it had made in some of the toughest schools in the city.

Next will be formal hearings on both schools, scheduled in the next few months, then another vote by the SRC. Aspira could appeal the SRC’s final word to the state, and eventually to the courts.