SRC approves new Belmont Charter High School for Mantua

The 3-2 vote rejected the recommendation of the charter office.

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

The School Reform Commission on Friday approved the creation of a new, 300-student Belmont Charter High School, rejecting the recommendation from the District charter office that the application be denied.

A resolution to deny the charter had been prepared and distributed at the meeting. But Commissioner Bill Green had another “walk-on” resolution at the ready to approve it, with conditions. The resolution to deny never received a second, and Green’s resolution passed by a 3-2 vote.

The SRC also voted to begin the process for revoking the charter of World Communications Charter, but took no action (through a 2-2 tie) on a request from Harambee Institute, one of the city’s oldest charters, to increase its enrollment by 50 students.

DawnLynne Kacer, head of the charter office, told SRC members before the Belmont vote that she had concerns about the new school’s governance structure, which would involve a coalition with the K-8 Belmont Charter School and the K-2 Inquiry Charter School.

“The exact nature of the responsibilities of the proposed school, its partner Belmont schools (via the Coalition Agreement), and a non-profit back-office service provider (Community Education Alliance of West Philadelphia, or CEAWP) remain unclear,” reads the charter office evaluation. “Although the applicant has taken some steps to restructure board membership among the various entities mentioned above, significant concerns remain.”

They included a lack of clarity about which entity would actually employ teachers, and boards of the various entities that overlapped even though there is a requirement for “arm’s length” financial transactions between charters and service providers.

Michael Karp, who founded Belmont charter in what was originally a District-run school, had been identified as being on the board of both charters and CEAWP, which would constitute a conflict of interest. He and another person with roles in more than one of the entities have promised to step down from one. Kacer said that issue had been resolved.

“I think we have a situation today where the charter school office’s recommendation identified existing concerns that remain in place,” she said in an interview. She noted that this vote was the fourth involving the application for a Belmont Charter High School, and that the usual procedure is to seek corrective action before approving a new charter application.

“The hesitancy of the Charter School Office is that charter authorizing should reflect practices and outcomes based on evidence, and not promise of future actions that may occur,” she added. “In an ideal world we would not be so heavily conditioning an approval,” she said, for a new charter application.

Green’s resolution gives Belmont the choice of creating a new charter or amending the existing charter to create a K-12 school. Conditions attached include complying with all state curricular requirements and rules regarding admissions lotteries, but the resolution doesn’t specify governance restructuring. If it goes this route, the high school grades could eventually enroll 500 students.

The SRC had rejected Belmont’s application in February, but it was resubmitted.

The surprise vote followed a parade of parents, community members, and students saying that the two existing Belmont charters had positively affected their lives and the neighborhood. They said the area needs a high school; University City High School was closed in 2013 and subsequently demolished.

The last voice in favor of the charter was from City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who had a statement read at the meeting through an aide that said, among other things, that the Belmont charters had “exceeded all her expectations.”

CEAWP presents itself as creating the first real “community schools” in Philadelphia. Several local partner organizations testified at the meeting about their work at the Belmont schools.

In addition to Green, Commissioners Sylvia Simms and Farah Jimenez voted in favor. Chairwoman Marjorie Neff and Commissioner Feather Houstoun voted against.

Green’s resolution approves the charter, with conditions to correct concerns before it opens. But usually, those conditions are settled in a written agreement before commissioners vote.

The vote for revoking the World Communications charter was 4-1, with Simms voting no. On Harambee, the SRC originally voted 3-2 to deny the enrollment increase for the 500-student school. But after reviewing the paperwork, Jimenez determined that she need to recuse herself because her husband’s law firm had done legal work for the school. The resulting tie means that there was no official action and the issue could come up again.

Harambee’s executive director, Sandra Dungee Glenn, a former SRC chair, was present for the vote and urged that the expansion be granted.

The primary reason for holding a July 1 morning meeting was so that the SRC could approve tax and revenue anticipation notes for the new fiscal year. Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson explained that tax and other revenue come in on an erratic schedule while expenses are steady, so short-term borrowing is necessary.

Monson added a smidgen of levity to the meeting: whatever the other consequences of the Brexit vote – Britain’s decision to leave the European Union – the timing was such that it saved the District $350,000 in interest costs.

Hite speaks out against state bill

Before the SRC took any of the charter votes, Superintendent William Hite spoke out against Pennsylvania House Bill 530, which, in its current form, would overhaul charter regulation and make it easier for charters to add grades.

Hite said that the bill would severely restrict Philadelphia’s ability to manage its own charters and would hurt the District financially if charters could add enrollment without getting prior approval. Philadelphia has more than half the charter schools in the state.

The proposed legislation, among other provisions, would create a state performance evaluation matrix for charter schools and nullify any local efforts to do something different. Philadelphia’s charter office has spent years working on “quality authorizing,” or setting clear standards for charter approvals and continued operation.

“There is a shift in 530 of practices and policies that Philadelphia has worked to put in place to the statewide level,” said Kacer. “New charter applications, renewal applications and evaluations, all of them would be dictated at the state level without the ability for us to amend or modify.” For instance, the District would not be allowed to ask for additional information beyond what the state specifies, she said.

Kacer said that it is still unclear to her from the versions of the bill that she has seen if the District would be able to consider academic performance, operations and financial conditions in considering charter renewals.

The legislation would create a new commission to study how charters are funded, and that body would also figure out a charter performance matrix. It would also expand the membership of the state Charter Appeals Board to add two members from the charter sector, which presumably would make it more charter-friendly.

HB 530 would also allow “multiple charter organizations,” like Belmont, to have one board and move resources across schools — what the Philadelphia charter office opposes in seeking to preserve the independence of individual charter schools and their funding streams.

Several advocacy groups, including Public Citizens for Children & Youth (PCCY) have been raising the alarm about the legislation.