Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania has sued the Philadelphia School District and its board over their failure to renew the charter schools Aspira manages, leaving them in limbo for years.
The lawsuit, served on the district Monday, alleges the “interminably long and fraught” charter renewal process has hurt Aspira financially and violated the Latino organization’s due-process and contract rights. Aspira’s attorney said it could have “far-reaching consequences" for how the district regulates Philadelphia’s 89 charter schools, which educate 70,000, or one-third of the city’s public-school students.
It comes after the school board held nonrenewal hearings in March for the Aspira-run Stetson and Olney schools, whose charters expired in 2015 and 2016 and were recommended for nonrenewal by the district for academic and financial reasons. Since the hearings, the board has not acted to renew or non-renew the schools. Stetson enrolls students in grades 5-8, and Olney, those in high school.
Both schools were previously run by the district but handed over to Aspira in 2010 and 2011 to turn around as part of the district’s “Renaissance Schools” initiative. The schools — which like other charters are publicly funded — pay fees to Aspira, which manages them and says the schools have improved under its oversight.
It also manages Eugenia Maria de Hostos and Antonio Pantoja elementary schools, two other Philadelphia schools whose charters expired in 2018. The schools haven’t signed new charter agreements, because the district is trying to cap their enrollments, according to the lawsuit.
In total, Aspira’s Philadelphia charters enroll more than 4,000 students, according to the district. Aspira also manages a cyber charter, which is authorized by the state.
While the schools are governed by boards of trustees, Aspira says the district’s actions toward the charters have violated its due-process rights as a management organization, saying it has been denied opportunities to be heard by the former School Reform Commission and current school board.
It takes issue with other aspects of the nonrenewal process, alleging the nonrenewal hearings were conducted by an officer with conflicts of interest, among other claims.
Aspira also says its contract rights have been violated, due to its agreement with the district during the Renaissance initiative. It says the renewal delays have cost it $5 million.
In addition to asking the Court of Common Pleas to order the district to renew Aspira’s four Philadelphia charters, the lawsuit asks it to order the district “to implement adequate procedures and safeguards to protect the property and liberty interests of charter schools and their management organizations.”
Aspira is seeking a “declaration that the process that’s been used in a circumstance like this, where you have a government entity that is in effect both the competitor of and regulator of schools — you have to be absolutely sure it is a fair process,” said former city solicitor Ken Trujillo, who is representing Aspira.
If the court “enters an order such as we are seeking it would have far reaching consequences on how the district’s charter renewal process is conducted,” Trujillo said.
A spokesperson for the school board declined to comment. The district did not respond to a request for comment.
Aspira’s management has faced scrutiny from the School District, which has faulted the schools’ financial entanglements, and the state auditor general, who last year said his office found “no justification” for rising payments from the schools to Aspira.
Aspira’s lawsuit says the schools’ payments rose because Aspira centralized their operations under its purview. While the district has the ability to audit charter schools, as a charter-management organization, Aspira’s finances are not subject to the same oversight.