Shuttered charter school leaves students, staff scrambling

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Dr. Walter Palmer in his office at the Palmer Charter School on April 22, 2014. (Val Russ/Staff)

The fallout from the abrupt closing of the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School is spreading.

Teachers say they fear they won't be paid for working in December. And amid rumors that the charter's flagship building in Northern Liberties would be liquidated to pay creditors, several teachers decided to retrieve personal items Monday - but were initially thwarted by security.

Frustrated parents held a protest.

"It's unfair to receive notification over the weekend that the school will be closed," said Jihan Pauling, a parent who organized a rally outside the charter's main campus.

Citing insurmountable financial obstacles, the Palmer charter sent letters to families and staff on Friday informing them that the school would close permanently Wednesday.

The move sent teachers on quests for new jobs and information about filing for unemployment, and left families of the school's 675 students in kindergarten through eighth grade scrambling for new schools.

The younger students were based in Northern Liberties. The fifth through eighth graders had attended classes in the former St. Bartholomew Catholic School on Harbison Avenue in Frankford.

John L. Pund Jr., the financial consultant hired by the charter's board to handle the liquidation, said the board had no alternative to closing after the Philadelphia School District said it would require the charter to begin making monthly payments of $250,000.

That money was to repay the $1.5 million that the courts had ruled that the charter had collected for students it was not entitled to have.

Pund said that the charter's attorneys had tried to negotiate a different payment plan with the district.

"There is just no cash-flow way to survive at this point," he said.

He estimated that the charter school's debts total at least $5 million - not including the $9 million it owes bondholders for its building in Northern Liberties.

Rumors about liquidation of the charter's assets prompted teachers to rush to gather classroom supplies they had bought with their own money.

"It's one thing not to pay me, but it's another if you're going to take my things," said one six-year veteran, who had to wait a half-hour before being allowed to gather the items. The teacher did not want to be named for fear of retaliation from charter officials.

Pund said teachers should not encounter any difficulties retrieving their property from the Northern Liberties site because the liquidation to repay the bondholders would take time. The building will not change hands for some time, he said, adding, "All this does is start the liquidation process."

But the charter will have to negotiate with its landlord in Frankford to reclaim items there.

Citing $104,110 in past-due rent for October through December, attorneys for St. Bartholomew filed action in Common Pleas Court to take control of the building. Palmer officials were served last week.

Pund said the locks had been changed.

St. Bartholomew attorney Walter S. Zimolong said he had been in contact with the School District's attorneys to arrange for the district to collect student records. He said he would communicate with the Palmer charter as well.

The School District announced Monday that it had scheduled sessions to help displaced Palmer students transfer to district schools.

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said Palmer families could come to district headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. to register at district schools Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon; Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In addition, families can register online at http://webgui.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/c/charter_schools/charter-transition

Gallard said that even though the Palmer charter has shuttered, the School Reform Commission will continue the process of revoking the school's operating charter for poor academic performance as well as shaky finances. Revocation hearings concluded last month.

Said Gallard: "This charter was not working out for students."


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