School board reverses SRC decision, renews Richard Allen charter

The board approved a 2019-20 calendar that will start school after Labor Day, but tabled the proposed 2020-21 calendar after parents raised concerns.

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

After the Board of Education meeting Thursday night, many longtime activists in the audience felt as if they had returned to the days of the board’s predecessor, the School Reform Commission. The most controversial vote reversed the SRC’s 2017 decision to close Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School for years of poor and declining academics, instead granting it a one-year extension.

But the charter school was not the only point of contention. The board also considered new academic calendars for 2019-20 and 2020-21, fresh off this fall’s hapless attempt to start the school year before Labor Day for the first time. Classes started on Aug. 27 in an effort to maximize instructional time before testing, but the first two weeks were marked by several days of early closings due to excessive heat.

Chief Schools Officer Shawn Bird explained that the proposed calendars were based on more than 6,400 survey responses from parents through the Parent Portal.

The calendar for 2019-20, which shows that school will start the day after Labor Day, on Sept. 3, was approved unanimously. The last day of school will be June 12. Families will get eight days for winter break and a week for spring break, along with Jewish holidays and the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr.

Byrd said that one of the most common survey responses received was to end the year by mid-June, when many camps and other daytime summer activities begin.

The 2020-21 school year’s calendar was eventually tabled, to be voted on after the board makes changes. This was at the request of one of two speakers who criticized it. The proposal would have started school on Aug. 31, before Labor Day, which that year is Sept. 7.

Cecelia Thompson, a parent in the District and an advocate for children with special needs, said she was concerned about the proposed two-week winter break that year and wanted it to be tabled. Thompson worried about high-poverty neighborhoods where more children are dependent on the free lunch and breakfast they get from school. And those are the parents who struggle the most to pay for child care.

“In high-poverty areas, children are just roaming around on a professional development day. I can’t imagine what it would be like for those weeks in December,” she said. “And for children with special needs, that’s too long a gap for them to go without services. … For many children, school is a safe place – a safe haven.”

Bird said that parent responses were split on adding an extra week to the break. During community meetings, parents also raised the issue of how difficult it is when their children have half-days for professional development. “So we try to minimize the number” of half-days, he said.

The other complaint came from a parent at Penn Alexander Elementary.

“As Asian American parents, we are wondering if the lunar new year could be recognized and respected as well,” she said. “It is the most important cultural tradition for most Asian families in Philadelphia.”

Board President Joyce Wilkerson said their requests would be “revisited” with for the 2020-21 calendar.

Superintendent William Hite said he aimed to have next year’s calendar published in December so parents had time to review it and plan ahead. And the District will continue this process of releasing the calendars more than a year ahead of time.

“We also plan to work with the city, just as we do over the summer, to provide opportunities for children to go to who would otherwise be at home unattended,” Hite said.

In his opening remarks, Hite thanked the school nurse at Ben Franklin High School, Donna Santos.

“A child went into cardiac arrest,” Hite said, but “Ms. Santos … ensured that young person stayed alive until they were able to get medical help.”

The board also elected officers unanimously, with no dissent or opposition, and everyone kept their seats. Joyce Wilkerson and Wayne Walker were voted president and vice president, respectively.

A number of speakers applauded the District’s newly implemented policy to better preserve and inventory a school’s artwork when it is closed or relocated.

Safety was also on the agenda. Sheila Armstrong came to report that a parent volunteer was cut with a box cutter at the William Dick Elementary School. Hite took note and said he would follow up.

Antione Little, an activist with the Our City Our Schools coalition, which formed to press the mayor to disband the SRC, reported to the school board that his son had been shocked by a faulty outlet. His son bears a scar from the injury, and Little had pictures of it to show the board.

“My son has a second-degree burn on his rear end,” Little said. “That’s not acceptable to me as a father. … I ask everyone here on this board to, please, do me a favor and actually go into these schools and make sure these schools get repaired.”

He said he was tired of hearing about “what we can’t afford. … That’s just not acceptable.”

Richard Allen charter renewal

Richard Allen Charter Preparatory Charter School, which has operated since 2001, was given a one-year renewal in 2015 by the School Reform Commission, as long as it fulfilled certain academic conditions and complied with regulations in the state’s charter school law.

The school did not fulfill those conditions. It continued to operate past the expiration of its charter, and in 2017, the SRC voted not to renew its charter.

Reasons cited for the decision included declining academic performance, noncompliance with enrollment practices followed by other charter schools, failure to comply with laws on English language learner education, violations of the District’s due process and student discipline policies for charters, noncompliance with local health and safety codes, and failure to submit audits and financial conflict of interest forms for board members.

“A yes vote on this is going to be a litmus test,” said Lisa Haver, co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), “so the people can see whether or not the board is going to continue the SRC’s practice of spending tax dollars on failing charters.”

But, in a 5-3 vote that triggered a closed-door session, the school board reversed the SRC’s decision, and the school will remain open through the 2020-21 school year. Richard Allen agreed to a contract with conditions, and failure to meet those conditions would allow the District to close the school — though that point is contested. The list of conditions is more than 20 items long, and it addresses the same problems the SRC had with the school.

After taking the initial vote, Wilkerson called an “intermission” so that board members could speak with the District’s general counsel and make sure they understood the resolution. She said they might “re-vote” if members felt the need. But after the board re-emerged, the same 5-3 vote was re-announced and the board moved on without further discussion.

Haver called this a violation of the state’s Sunshine Act, which governs transparency of public agencies and governing bodies, because the board did not go into “executive session.” It’s a long-standing dispute that caused APPS to file a lawsuit against the SRC in 2014. It was settled, with APPS winning some agreements for further transparency, but Haver said that APPS can’t afford to sue every time the Sunshine Act is not being followed.

The three dissenting votes came from Wilkerson, Julia Danzy, and Mallory Fix-Lopez.

The resolution states that the purpose of imposing conditions is to “avoid the time, expense, and uncertainty of further litigation” that would result if Richard Allen hired lawyers to appeal the board’s potential non-renewal decision to the state’s Charter Appeals Board. But every charter school has the same ability to hire lawyers and appeal. So the statement seems to indicate that the board is reluctant to issue non-renewal decisions as long as the state law and appeals process exists as it is now.

Three board members spoke out against the school but then voted in favor. They seemed to embrace the legal reasoning.

Member Christopher McGinley was tight-lipped, sighing and saying he was “reluctantly voting yes.”

Member Wayne Walker said, “Our commitment is to quality. And it’s not much of a secret to see that Richard Allen is failing in that respect.

“We take our charter law as we find it, and until it’s changed, I think the best course for us to try to have quality with Richard Allen is by supporting this resolution.”

Member Angela McIver, who taught in the Norristown Area School District and was an administrator for Mastery Charter Schools, said she was a participant in the Black Alliance for Education Options in the 1990s.

“I became a believer in the power of charter schools to provide access to educational opportunities,” she said. “That is why the historical data regarding student achievement at Richard Allen is so alarming.”

Even “free from the burdens of bureaucracy,” the school has “not demonstrated they can provide a better educational option for children. I believe that this school should close.”

But she said that closing schools has an effect on broader communities and that she felt that Richard Allen’s West Philadelphia community had embraced the school.

Deborah Grill, a retired teacher and activist with APPS, asked in her testimony: “Why would you assume it would accomplish in two years what it hasn’t been able to do in 17 years? By approving this agreement, you are sending a message to all existing charters that there are really no consequences for continuing failure to meet standards set by the District.”

Grill said that the school can still appeal to the state’s Charter Appeals Board if it doesn’t like the decision that the school board makes in 2021 or can simply sue and take them to court over the conditions. She said she attended a committee meeting where the District’s general counsel conceded that the agreement was “not legally binding.”

But the District’s general counsel, Lynn Rosner Rauch, disputed at least part of this.

“I never stated that the agreement is not legally binding,” she said, only that it cannot be appealed. “I think you’re referring to whether or not someone could sue over it, and what I said is: You can never stop someone from going to court.”

Grill asked whether that meant they couldn’t appeal to the Charter Appeals Board, but could still sue over the signed conditions.

“That’s procedural,” Rosner Rauch replied. “I’m not going to get into giving legal advice tonight.”

Rich Migliore, a lawyer who represents teachers and a member of APPS, said the distinction was somewhat semantic: The school couldn’t appeal the decision to the state Appeals Board, but it could still sue, arguing that the conditions themselves are not binding under the charter school law or as a contract.

In fact, the School District has already been taken to the Appeals Board in an attempt to do just that. When the District tried to impose conditions on Franklin Towne’s new charter school, Franklin Towne refused to sign and took the District to the state Appeals Board. That charter is now arguing that the conditions themselves are not legal under the state’s charter school law. If Franklin Towne wins, the practice of imposing conditions on charters would be legally useless.

Activists were suspicious of Richard Allen Charter School’s political ties.

The school’s CEO, Larry Jones, is also the president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, a lobbying and advocacy group. The organization’s 990 tax forms show that its board is made up of five charter school CEOs, a lobbyist, a track coach, and the CEO of Black Educational Alliance for Excellence. The group spent $80,000 on lobbying this year as of October 2018.

“Richard Allen and the Richard Allen Development & Improvement Organization have everything to gain and nothing to lose,” Grill said. “Meanwhile, the District will incur the expense of allowing the charter to operate … in addition to the expense of the litigation when they sue.”