A year and a half after his school’s charter was ended by the Philadelphia school board, Aspira Olney Charter High School principal James Thompson struggles when parents ask what its fate will be.
“I have to tell them, I honestly don’t know,” said Thompson. And the answer just got murkier.
Olney is awaiting a decision from Pennsylvania’s Charter Appeals Board — a relatively little-known state panel that wields sizable power over the educations of thousands of students and millions in taxpayer dollars.
The board has the ability to overturn decisions by school districts that have rejected new charter schools or — as in Olney’s case — ended existing agreements with the independently run, publicly funded schools.
But right now, it isn’t operating. The board’s scheduled meeting Tuesday was canceled after Gov. Tom Wolf last month notified members that their terms — which had long expired — were up. Wolf nominated replacements for the state Senate to confirm but has since withdrawn them.
The effective disbanding, which took place amid a standoff between Wolf and Republican lawmakers over the Democratic governor’s effort to join a multistate climate initiative, has angered charter advocates who say the governor has blocked the venue for their schools to seek recourse from unjust decisions by school districts.
“An entity they thought would be fair and balanced is now in a limbo state,” said Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, which has opposed Wolf’s calls to overhaul the charter funding system. McAllister said emptying the appeals board was “unfortunately another way to stymie the will of Pennsylvania families” who have sought charter options.
But it also means school districts that have ended charters for not meeting performance or management standards — like the Philadelphia district’s case against Olney — may have to wait longer for appeals to be settled. The charters are allowed to stay open while they appeal.
“Letting this board languish will hurt all of us — charter schools, school districts, and most importantly, students and their families,” Philadelphia school board president Joyce Wilkerson said in a statement, urging Wolf and lawmakers to fill the seats “as quickly as possible.” Other districts with pending cases include Pittsburgh, Souderton, and Southeast Delco.
At a news conference Wednesday at Pottstown High School — where he again called on lawmakers to curb “skyrocketing” charter costs to districts — Wolf said he wanted to put new members on the appeals board and was working with the Senate “to figure out how we can move that process along.”
“There are partisan differences between the chambers and me,” Wolf said.
The appeals board has been a source of controversy for years. Until now, Wolf, who took office in 2015, hadn’t moved to replace its five members, who were appointed by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and serving under expired terms. A sixth seat was vacant, creating problems for one Western Pennsylvania charter organization and the Pittsburgh school district, which came before the board multiple times because there weren’t enough members to render a decision.
“Kind of a power play, I assume,” Mitchell Yanyanin said of the April 23 letter he received from Wolf dismissing him from the board. A retired Beaver County teacher who occupied a seat designated for a school board member, Mitchell noted that his term expired “a long time ago” and that he no longer serves on a school board.
Of the pause on hearing charter appeals, “that may be to somebody’s advantage,” Yanyanin said. “But I’m not sure whose.”
The board has been seen by some as too deferential toward charters, in part for maintaining that school districts cannot consider costs in evaluating applications for new charters. Critics argue state law doesn’t prohibit districts from considering the impact of new charters on their finances.
“We’ve missed that opportunity for seven years,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth and policy chief to former Gov. Ed Rendell. Now, without an agreement on new board members, Cooper expressed concern that the seats could be filled by Wolf’s successor, who might be more favorable toward charter expansion.
“There’s a risk you get a charter appeals board that has no compunction about constantly siding with charters,” she said.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Wolf, did not comment on why the governor withdrew the nominees he put forward last month, but said he hoped to get legislative approvals for new members “so the board can resume full operating before the June meeting.”
McAllister, of the charter coalition, said Wolf’s nominees were “not necessarily names on our list.”
The governor’s move to replace the appeals board while pushing lawmakers to back charter legislation they previously rejected appears to be an attempt to “go it alone,” McAllister said. “Eventually, this will have to lead to some negotiations.”
For school communities awaiting resolution, the questions around the board have created more uncertainty. At Olney Charter, which was first recommended for nonrenewal five years ago — and whose management company, Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania, has been fighting to maintain control — enrollment has been declining. Thompson, the principal, said the ninth-grade class, which normally averages 500 students, has just 310 this year.
A former district school that was given to Aspira a decade ago as part of an initiative to turn around struggling schools, Olney won’t close if its charter agreement ends. Still, “every time a decision is made or not made, there’s a bunch of confusion among students,” said Sarah Apt, who teaches English as a second language. She tells them the school isn’t closing, but that doesn’t answer all their questions.
Prolonging a decision in the school’s appeal represents “a failure of government to prioritize education,” said Apt, president of the Alliance of Charter School Employees, an American Federation of Teachers local representing employees at four Pennsylvania charters. “It’s a lack of respect toward the stability in the community to not make a decision either way.”