Two Phila. charter schools in peril

(From left) Wakisha Charter School board secretary Mary May, chairman Miguel Pulido and vice chairman Bob Borzotta listen during a board meeting on Nov. 13, 2014. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )

As the Philadelphia School Reform Commission considers applications for 40 new charter schools, one existing charter has announced it must close next week and another is living from paycheck to paycheck.

The embattled Wakisha Charter School is running out of money so fast that the North Philadelphia middle school now plans to shutter Friday instead of Dec. 23, and will operate only half-days next week.

And the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, a K-8 school with campuses in Northern Liberties and Frankford, has had trouble making payroll.

Palmer teachers, who were scheduled to be paid Dec. 5, received checks three days late and were told the money would not be available immediately.

Walter D. Palmer, the founder and board president of the school, said the delay was caused by a cash-flow problem. "It was a timing issue," he said.

Wakisha's early closing was announced in a letter to families Thursday.

"Currently, we have approximately 100 students, three administrators, and 10 classroom teachers and support staff," Michelle Robinson, the school's assistant principal, wrote. "We expect that the numbers will continue to decrease. As a result, the last day for students will be Dec. 19."

School officials did not respond to requests for comment.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard confirmed the early shuttering.

"They have informed us they are closing the 19th," he said. "It's unfortunate that it has gotten to this point, but we are concentrating on trying to get students into new schools as soon as possible."

Gallard said staff from the district's charter office went to Wakisha Thursday to help parents get students' transcripts and provide transfer information.

The Wakisha announcement came one month after the charter's board voted to permanently close the school because it was on the verge of financial collapse.

At that time, chief executive officer Crystal E. Nelson said that 261 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders were enrolled at the school at 800 W. Jefferson St.

Wakisha, an under-enrolled school that opened in 2000 and featured an African-centric curriculum, has been struggling financially and academically for years.

The state Department of Education's website said the school had total revenue of $4.5 million in 2012-13, the most recent year available.

While Wakisha teachers said there had been recent gaps in medical and dental coverage because the school was late paying its bills, the charter has had chronic problems making payments to the state teachers' pension program. The bills include the charter's contribution, as well as funds already deducted from teachers' pay.

When a charter is delinquent, the Education Department informs the district and trims the district's share of state funds to cover the tab. The district in turn deducts that amount from the next month's charter payment.

Gallard said the district cut payments to Wakisha by $117,498 to cover September's pension bill and $18,184 for November.

But since the school is closing, the district could be on the hook for December's bill of $193,517 because the district will not be able to recoup the money from future payments.

"We're in conversations with the school about that," Gallard said.

The Palmer charter has also had trouble paying the Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS). The district deducted $291,012 from Palmer to cover bills for September and $307,244 for December.

And pension bills are only part of the financial problems at the Palmer charter. The courts ordered the charter to repay the district $1.5 million for collecting money for students it was not authorized to enroll.

Until earlier this fall, the school had nearly 1,300 students, even though the agreement it signed in 2005 set a limit of 675.

To comply with court orders, the charter in October eliminated its high school program and held a lottery to cut the number of K-8 students to 675.

Palmer said the school's attorneys are trying to negotiate a payment plan with the district.

He said he hopes that the district will be reasonable and "won't force a complete financial meltdown."


martha.woodall@phillynews.com 215-854-2789