SRC renews one charter, postpones two others; goes with Maramont for food contract

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The School Reform Commission voted Thursday to grant a five-year renewal to New Foundations Charter School, but postponed a decision on two others.

It also gave a $93 million, three-year contract to Maramont Corp. for school lunch services, but only after extensive questioning of company representatives and the District’s food service staff.

Activist students had supported the hiring of another company, which they said promised more appetizing and fresh food. Maramont has long held the District’s major school lunch contract, which is one of the District’s largest.

The votes capped a five-hour meeting at which the SRC declined to adopt a budget for the coming school year, ignoring a deadline in the city charter.

The SRC also had been scheduled to vote on the renewals for Esperanza Academy and for Performing Arts Charter School. However, both ran into last-minute snags, said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn.

In the case of Esperanza, he said that the school’s board declined to sign the written charter until it meets on June 12. "It’s our understanding that they have every intention of signing it; they just wanted more time," said Kihn after the meeting.

As for Performing Arts, this is the second time its charter renewal has been postponed. The last time, the SRC expressed concerns that the school’s student body does not reflect the diversity of the District’s population. SRC members wanted a more complete marketing and enrollment plan.

Kihn said that the charter presented an acceptable marketing and outreach plan, but that he was concerned about its growth projections. Performing Arts has operated a K-8 school for 15 years and recently opened a high school in Center City. The charter’s enrollment cap is more than 2,500 students, but the District is worried that it may reach the cap too soon by adding more elementary students than the District planned for.

Commissioner Feather Houstoun expressed concern that New Foundations has only 9 percent special education students and 1 percent who are English language learners, but she voted yes on its charter renewal.

Kihn said that District officials plan to start posing as parents who want to apply — he called it "mystery shopping" — to make sure that charter schools aren’t "creaming" the best students.

The SRC also approved a resolution that allows Maritime Charter to add grades K-3.

The food service contract for Maramont was approved, 4-1, with a dissenting vote from Commissioner Sylvia Simms — grandmother of a District student — who indicated that she spends time in school cafeterias.

She and other commissioners, especially Houstoun, asked District officials Wayne Grasela and Fran Burns, as well as Maramont representatives, about who guarantees that the food reaching students is hot and well-prepared.

“On the ground, in the schools, who and how does Maramont assure what arrives at the school is of high quality?" Houstoun asked.

Maramont subcontractor Mildred Raymond said that "we give you good quality food. I certainly wouldn’t want anything to go in that I wouldn’t give my own children."

Burns said that the District has distributed surveys to students about whether they like the food and by and large determined that Maramont was acceptable.

Students from Youth United for Change had lobbied the SRC to hire a rival company, Revolution, which promised more fresh food.

Before the vote YUC member and Kensington CAPA student Xuan Nguyen called hiring Maramont "unacceptable. It is disappointing that the School District of Philadelphia refuses to move towards a positive future in the healthy food movement."

She urged that the SRC approve a pilot project with Revolution in 15 schools to spur "competition."