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In a first, Philly school board votes to take back control of two charters

While they voted to end Aspira's management of Olney and Stetson, some board members were conflicted about whether the district could do better.

Students protest ahead of the Philadelphia school board's vote Thursday to non-renew Stetson and Olney charter schools.
Students protest ahead of the Philadelphia school board's vote Thursday to non-renew Stetson and Olney charter schools.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Board of Education voted Thursday against renewing charters for two schools run by a powerful Latino nonprofit, a decision years in the making.

But a number of board members said it wasn’t an easy one. Olney Charter High School and John B. Stetson Charter School, a middle school in Kensington, used to be district schools. They were handed over to Aspira in 2010 and 2011 — along with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars — as part of a district initiative to turn around underperforming schools.

The schools are still doing poorly academically. They haven’t followed through on the promises in their charter agreements and have engaged in improper fiscal practices, according to a hearing officer appointed by the board to evaluate the district’s recommendation, now three years old, that the charters not be renewed.

Yet some board members questioned how or whether the district could do better in taking back the schools, as administrators, teachers, and students packing the district’s auditorium Thursday pleaded for the schools to stay managed by Aspira. Students held signs in the air that read “Our charter deserves a chance,” “Kids not politics," and “Mi escuela no es un juego" — my school is not a game.

Aspira supporters told the board the schools are safer than they were before and offer more social services.

“You don’t understand unless you’ve been there,” said parent Doris Thayer, who attended Olney High in the late 1990s and whose children now go to the school. “If you take them out, you’re going to regret it.”

Tony Rocco, who has taught at Stetson for 10 years, said that under Aspira’s management, “it’s night and day.” In his first year at the school, “kids were taken out in handcuffs regularly once a day. ... We don’t even have a school police officer anymore.”

Yet the schools have also engaged in inappropriate fiscal and organization practices, and have failed to hit academic targets, according to district evaluators. In 2016, the district recommended against renewing the charters. The former School Reform Commission delayed voting on the agreements, but began the non-renewal process at the end of 2017. Hearings on the issue were held earlier this year.

Despite the hesitations of some board members, they ultimately voted 8-1 to deny renewing the schools. Mallory Fix Lopez was the lone no vote. “I keep thinking of, can we do better,” she said.

Board member Christopher McGinley urged board members to consider the findings from Olney’s and Stetson’s hearings. The lawyer appointed by the board to conduct them, Rudolph Garcia, said the schools’ boards of trustees had failed to oversee Aspira’s fiscal management and improperly pledged school assets to guarantee financing for other Aspira-managed schools, violating Pennsylvania’s charter school law.

"If we ignore that, I don’t know how we would say no to any charter in the future,” McGinley said.

Aspira, represented by former city solicitor Ken Trujillo, has sued the district and school board, alleging its rights were violated during the hearings and throughout the lengthy review process. The district and board have moved to dismiss the case, which is in federal court.

Olney and Stetson have the right to appeal Thursday’s votes to the state Charter Appeals Board, meaning any transition to district control may not happen soon.

Naomi Wyatt, chief of staff to Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., said it would take months to restore the schools to district operation. The transition, she said, would start with community engagement. The district would plan a budget for the schools “to make sure whatever supports are in place can be continued."

Earlier, Hite suggested the district would consider “ways to work with Aspira as a contracting group” to provide services to the schools.

Olney and Stetson received $38 million from the district in 2018. The schools pay management fees to Aspira, which runs two other charters in the city, as well as a cyber charter school.