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Philly school board to vote on ending charter agreements for two Aspira-run schools

The votes on Olney and Stetson will come more than three years after the school district recommended ending the schools’ charter agreements. But they may not be the end of the saga.

Parents, union members, students and teachers walked around Aspira's Olney Charter High School during a rally in support of a new contract on March 19, 2019.
Parents, union members, students and teachers walked around Aspira's Olney Charter High School during a rally in support of a new contract on March 19, 2019.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia School Board is expected to vote Thursday night on whether to take back two schools run by Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania, more than three years after the district recommended ending the charter agreements due to academic and financial issues.

The votes on Olney Charter High School and John B. Stetson Charter School, which received more than $38 million in district funds in 2018, represent a significant step in the lengthy charter nonrenewal process.

As former district schools that were turned over to Aspira to manage, Olney and Stetson, a middle school in Kensington, won’t close if the board votes to non-renew their charters. But whatever Thursday’s outcome, the schools may not return to district control anytime soon.

The charter schools could appeal to the state Charter Appeals Board. Aspira, meanwhile, has sued the district and school board, alleging the nonrenewal process has violated its rights as a charter-management organization.

Here’s what you need to know ahead of Thursday’s vote.

What does this mean for students and teachers?

Regardless of the vote outcomes, students who wish to can stay at Olney and Stetson, which, as Renaissance charters, enroll students from their surrounding neighborhoods.

Students also can apply to district schools through Nov. 1 if they would like to attend a new school in the fall. Charter school application time frames differ, though many share a Jan. 27 deadline. If the schools transition to district control, staff will be able to apply for positions with the district.

School board officials say any transition to district control would involve the community.

Why are the schools losing their charters?

The district handed Stetson and Olney over to Aspira in 2010 and 2011 as part of its Renaissance Schools initiative to turn around underperforming schools.

But the schools haven’t lived up to the promises Aspira made in its charter agreements or abided by accepted financial practices, according to the hearing officer who presided over nonrenewal hearings for the schools earlier this year.

“Olney has good reason to be proud of the substantial climate improvements it has made in the last eight years, but these improvements have not resulted in the ‘dramatic gains in student achievement’ that were expected, either within the first four years of the charter term or at any time thereafter," the hearing officer, lawyer Rudolph Garcia, wrote in a 192-page report on Olney. He reached the same conclusion about Stetson in a similar report.

Garcia’s reports found many issues at Olney and Stetson, including their organizational and financial practices. The boards of trustees at both schools “provided insufficient oversight” of Aspira’s fiscal management and guaranteed financing for other Aspira-managed schools, which violated Pennsylvania’s charter school law, Garcia said.

What is the schools’ response?

Aspira, which manages five charters, has asked the school board to reject Garcia’s reports, saying it has improved the schools and that the district “misunderstood” management issues.

In a letter sent last week to the district’s general counsel, Ken Trujillo, a lawyer for Aspira, argued that Garcia “got the facts and the law wrong.” He asked that new hearings be held, saying Aspira should have the right to participate along with the schools.

Aspira also has gone to court to make its case. It filed suit in the Court of Common Pleas in September, alleging its rights as a Renaissance school operator have been violated by an “interminably long and fraught” charter renewal process. It says the renewal delays have cost it $5 million.

The school district and school board have moved to dismiss the case, which is now in federal court. The board will vote on the charters during its 5 p.m. board meeting at district headquarters on Thursday.