In surprise, SRC approves Deep Roots charter, with conditions

It also approves a revised budget that will make new investments, including more ESL teachers and bilingual counseling assistance. But future deficits loom.

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

The School Reform Commission made another unexpected move Thursday night with the approval of Deep Roots Charter School, which was approved with conditions by a 4-1 vote.

Christopher McGinley, the lone nay vote, said he felt the resolution was neither “realistic nor sustainable.”

The SRC also adopted a revised budget for next year that will add 76 new teaching positions, including 10 more for English learners, and 18 additional bilingual counseling assistants. The investments are being made while the District’s finances are momentarily in balance, but the future picture remains precarious — and made more uncertain by President Trump’s plans to slash federal education spending.

Before the meeting, a coalition of activists led by Councilwoman Helen Gym urged the SRC to adopt an “equity agenda,” and assure that all students have access to instrumental music teaches. An analysis by Gym’s office determined that 51 schools in the city, most in North and West Philadelphia that serve low income students of color, have no instrumental music teachers.

Deep Roots’ application was denied in February; at the time, SRC chair Joyce Wilkerson said that the application had “glaring concerns.”

When Wilkerson called for a motion to approve the revised charter application, there were murmurs of displeasure from the crowd. But at least one parent spoke in favor, said the school was planning to locate in an “education desert.”

The resolution imposes conditions on the approval, including that it must submit an admissions policy and process that complies with the Pennsylvania school code and charter school law, that its school leader must have valid PA certification, and that the school budgets for and hires certified staff, particularly for English learners and special education students.

As they’ve done with other decisions on charter schools, the SRC didn’t have the option to postpone a vote on Deep Roots. State law requires a decision to be made on a revised charter application 45 days after their receipt. Deep Roots submitted their revised application on April 10. May 25 was the 45th day.

Charter office head DawnLynne Kacer explained that if the SRC didn’t approve the school, Deep Roots could appeal the decision, dragging out the process. She said that since February, the applicants had addressed many of the concerns raised in February.

Estelle Richman, sitting in her first meeting as commissioner after her approval by the state Senate, said she feared a battle over one charter school could distract from the SRC’s most important task in the coming weeks: reaching agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers on a new contract.

Several speakers at the meeting pressed the need to reach an agreement, and at one point a chant erupted after parent activist Tomika Anglin said that “There is no higher priority than the teachers’ contract.”

“The message that I got most clearly this evening from all of the testimony is the most important thing on our agenda is the teacher’s contract,” said Richman. “That means everything else has to take second [place] to that. Which means anything that inches up in court, paying lawyers more money, is second to that.

“I don’t want to spend any money on anything unless it’s the teachers contract getting resolved.”

McGinley was harsh in his rejection of the Deep Roots application.

“Some may feel this application meets the legal standard for the Pennsylvania charter school law,” he said. “In my opinion it, does not come close to meeting the educator’s standard of a realistic and sustainable school.”

The school’s charter application was denied in February, with commissioners Joyce Wilkerson and Farah Jimenez citing serious concerns.

Wilkerson said Deep Roots application didn’t have much to offer in teaching English Language Learners, especially considering the school would be located a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.

Deep Roots’ revised application promised to hire social workers for the school, with an expected location in Kensington, and had a more developed plan for English learners.

If the school meets the conditions, it will open in the 2018-19 school year to 540 students at 3701 Frankford Avenue.

The meeting also saw some controversy over a one-year extension of the lease in the Center City building that now houses Science Leadership Academy. Although there was some talk of the school relocating to a vacant school building elsewhere in the city, students don’t want to move from the Center City location. But others complain that the lease is too expensive.

Tamir Harper, a junior at SLA, said they were promised a three-year lease extension by SRC members during a meeting last year. Harper, also a member of the Philadelphia Youth Commission, said he was let down by their broken promise.

“We live to fight another day,” said Harper. “We will continue to see what is in our best interests. And the SLA family will stay strong and continue to fight for what we believe is right.”

To the contrary, Gail Clouden, known as Mama Gail, said that the District spends a disproportionate amount on specialty schools like SLA.

The SRC also approved the amended budget for 2016-17, and an operating budget for 2017-18.

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson announced a five-year $526 million investment plan over the next five years. Additional investments for 18 additional bilingual counseling assistants and 10 additional ESOL teachers were announced for next year.

However, the financial future of the District still looks bleak. For the next two years, the District is projected to be in the black at the end of the fiscal year—$108 million for 2017 and $90 million for 2018.

But 2019 is the start of a financial windfall which will lead to a deficit of over $700 million by 2022 unless the city and state come up with additional funds for the District. The SRC has no taxing power of its own.

Monson also said that if President Trump’s federal budget goes through as proposed, millions in funds for teacher training and early literacy are at risk due to his elimination of all Title II. There is also uncertainty regarding the distribution of funds for the federal government’s largest program directed at low-income students, Title I, which now funnels more than $100 million to Philadelphia.

“We’re making our case every chance we get with every elected official we can to make them aware of the situation,” said Munson. “[We’re] showing them that we’re able to spend the money efficiently and effectively and wisely make investments that are having results, and hopefully they will join us in our efforts to maintain these investments in the schools.”

Several speakers also renewed the call for the SRC to vote to abolish itself so the District can be returned to local control.