Dozens of private and charter schools across the region received millions of dollars in emergency federal loans in the pandemic, amid wider questions nationally about who received the money and why.
The recipients of the Paycheck Protection Program loans range from exclusive private schools on the Main Line like the all-girls Agnes Irwin and Baldwin schools, and the George School in Newtown, where tuition for boarding students tops $63,000, to the Independence Mission Schools, a network of Catholic schools in Philadelphia that laid off 180 teachers and staff this spring.
The list also includes charters like Chester Community Charter, Franklin Towne Charter High School, and Mastery Charters, whose funding streams from home school districts have not been disrupted by the coronavirus.
The loans to charters drew immediate criticism, based on the schools’ status as publicly funded but independently run organizations. Despite the financial pressures brought on by the pandemic, Pennsylvania school districts are obligated to keep paying charters.
Donna Cooper, director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an education advocacy group, questioned how the schools had justified the loans — which required applicants to certify that the money was necessary to support their operations — since they have not seen public funding cuts.
The recipients were disclosed Monday by the federal government. The disclosures, however, did not offer exact amounts of the loans given. Instead, the government gave ranges of the loans: $150,000 to $350,000; $350,000 to $1 million; $1 million to $2 million; $2 million to $5 million; $5 million to $10 million. The government also gave out loans of less than $150,000, but did not name the entities receiving
The loans are forgivable if recipients use the money to maintain or rehire employees at the same salaries.
Area charter schools granted loans between $5 million and $10 million included Collegium Charter School in Exton and Chester Community Charter, the state’s largest brick-and-mortar charter.
Max Tribble, spokesperson for CSMI — a company that manages Chester Community Charter and also received a federal loan — said the school had “a very real concern as to whether it would receive payment from the Chester Upland School District” during the pandemic. He said the district recently failed to make a payment on time, and later did so only “in the face of threatened litigation.”
The district has been controlled for years by a court-appointed receiver.
The loan data released Monday indicate that Chester Community Charter — listed in documents as Archway Charter School of Chester — retained 479 jobs through the loan. Pennsylvania barred public schools from laying off employees in the 2019-20 school year as a result of the pandemic.
While Tribble voiced concern about the Chester Upland district, Chester Community Charter draws a significant number of students from Philadelphia.
Uri Monson, the Philadelphia district’s chief financial officer, commented on Twitter Tuesday that Philadelphia charter schools receiving the loans were “also receiving every payment owed to them by the School District,” even as district revenues fell by over $50 million. “A new approach to double dipping,” Monson said.
Other charters granted loans included the Mastery Charter network, which received $5.2 million for its Camden schools. Kerry Woodward, deputy chief of institutional advancement for the network — which also runs schools in Philadelphia — said it sought the loan “on the cusp of a new school budget year at which time Gov. Phil Murphy has projected possible ‘Armageddon’ budget cuts.”
“This loan has allowed us to protect jobs today and in the future as we prepare for the possibility of additional school funding cuts,” Woodward said. “With any financial decision we make, our first priority is to continue providing a high-quality public school option to students in our community.”
In Philadelphia, Franklin Towne Charter High School in Bridesburg received a loan between $2 million and $5 million, as did Esperanza Academy Charter in North Philadelphia. Two cyber charters — Pennsylvania Leadership Charter and Pennsylvania Virtual Charter — also received loans in that range.
Many area private schools also received loans, varying from boarding and day schools to diocesan and parochial schools. Nationally, some private schools with hefty price tags have taken heat for seeking federal assistance.
Gary Niels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, said the schools “want to pay their teachers competitive wages and benefits,” and don’t know what enrollment will be for the 2020-21 school year.
“Schools that applied for a PPP loan were looking to the government to help to offset any potential losses of enrollment which would result in cuts to teachers and support staff,” Niels said.
Private schools receiving between $2 million and $5 million included schools like Friends Select, Germantown Friends, and Agnes Irwin — which head of school Sally Keidel said “has not been immune to the tremendous amount of uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought to communities across the U.S.”
“In addition to our role as an educational institution, we are a small business in the region,” Keidel said. “We have a responsibility to take every action available to financially navigate this uncertain future and protect our teachers and staff and their invaluable contribution to our community.”
The Independence Mission Schools in Philadelphia also received between $2 million and $5 million. Bruce Robinson, CEO of the network, which operates 15 Catholic elementaries, said in May that the network had sought a federal loan and planned to rehire laid-off employees.
Private schools receiving loans totaling $1 million to $2 million included Academy of Notre Dame de Namur in Radnor, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, and The Philadelphia School.
And dozens more schools received lesser loans, between $150,000 and $1 million. Among them are schools operated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — like Archbishop John Carroll High in Radnor, Bishop Shanahan High in Downingtown and Saints John Neumann and Maria Goretti High in South Philadelphia — which said it had applied for the loans along with related parishes, schools, and social services agencies.
Spokesperson Ken Gavin declined Tuesday to provide specifics about the loans, but said the money was being used for “ongoing employment of individuals, ensuring that schools operate without cessation, and continuing to provide vital human services to some of the most vulnerable, at-risk, and in-need segments of the population in the five-county Philadelphia metropolitan area.”