The Philadelphia school board on Thursday night voted against renewing the charters of two schools run by Universal Companies Inc., an organization that educates thousands across the city.
The two elementary schools, Universal Bluford and Universal Daroff, were district schools that struggled for years before being given to Universal, the nonprofit run by music impresario Kenny Gamble, to turn around.
But both were cited for deficiencies in finance and organizational compliance. Universal Daroff failed to meet academic standards. Universal Bluford fared better, approaching the district’s K-8 academic standards, but still was generally underperforming when compared with peer schools, according to a district report.
Daroff’s nonrenewal passed unanimously; Bluford’s was approved by 8-1, with Julia Danzy the lone negative vote. The board’s actions are the first steps in a process that could see Universal’s charters revoked and the schools returning to district control.
Penny Nixon, Universal’s superintendent, urged the board to hold off on its vote, saying the district gave Universal just five days to respond to its nonrenewal report.
“Given the current conditions, a response of five days is not feasible or fair,” Nixon said, adding that she believed that the district’s report was biased. Supporters of both schools also came to their defense.
“Bluford is a story of progress,” said Crystal Gary-Nelson, the school’s principal.
Devon Allen, a spokesperson for Universal, blasted the board’s move after the vote was taken, noted that Bluford has been singled out by the district as a leader among its peers, and said that both schools fared well compared to other charters and district schools.
“We will address and defend vigorously our academic growth and improvement, organizational compliance, viability and finances as an education management organization against the board’s vote of non-renewal for Universal Bluford and Universal Daroff,” Allen said in a statement.
But Tomea Sippio-Smith, education director for the nonprofit Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said the board’s move was the right one.
“The charter office’s reports point out glaring concerns with both charter schools as to student performance and in their management,” Sippio-Smith said in testimony submitted to the board. “Now more than ever, the district must consider whether the investments it makes are wise, given its projected $1 billion deficit. And considering the effort, tools, and resources it will take to get students’ learning back on track, the district cannot afford to pay tuition bills for schools that consistently fail its students.”
The board also approved a resolution calling for Pennsylvania to pass meaningful charter reform, saying that charter costs are growing much faster than charter enrollment, squeezing school systems unfairly, and that districts are overpaying charters and reimbursing them for costs they do not incur.
“The need for significant charter school funding reform is urgent,” the resolution says, “and school districts are struggling to keep up with growing charter costs, and are forced to raise taxes and cut staffing, programs, and services in order to pay increased costs to charter schools.”
That resolution, similar to ones passed by dozens of districts state-wide, drew ire from members of the charter community, including Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools.
“The COVID-19 crisis has shown the need for officials from both public charter schools and school districts to work together to ensure our children receive an education,” Meyers said in a statement. “That is why it is disappointing that the Philadelphia school board would consider a divisive resolution supporting drastic funding cuts for thousands of children in public charter schools.”
Later, the board voted to allow Laboratory Charter to consolidate its three campuses across the city into two locations, one in North Philadelphia and one in East Falls. It previously asked to simply relocate to the East Falls location, but was denied over community concerns.
East Falls residents still said the proposal still fell short, saying that the school would compete with Mifflin, the public school in the area, that they worried about traffic, and that they believed the school had done no real community engagement around its proposal.
“It’s insulting to individuals who live, work, and go to school in this neighborhood," said Mary Alice Duff, who sends her child to Mifflin.
The meeting represented the final time board members Christopher McGinley and Wayne Walker, the vice president, would be in attendance. Both have resigned from the panel.