Philadelphia’s Eastern University Academy Charter School is suing the School District for stopping its payments after a state appeals board vote in June to close the charter.
“The School District is not allowing the legal process to run its course. This is a de facto closure, and it’s illegal,” said the charter’s CEO, Omar Barlow, who has accused the district of targeting his school and other minority-led charters.
The charter still has the right to go to court. But it might not have money to do so — or to open in September, potentially leaving several hundred students in limbo.
Under Pennsylvania law, school districts send money to charter schools each month. Eastern hasn’t received payments since June from the School District, which has faulted the charter for poor standardized test scores and compliance issues.
The former School Reform Commission voted to close the school in April 2018, a decision affirmed by the appeals board in June. Eastern says it intends to appeal that decision, but the board hasn’t yet issued a written order.
The district, meanwhile, says the charter will no longer be in effect once the appeals board issues its order. At that point, the district said, it would have “no realistic method” of getting back money paid before the order was released.
“A substantial sum of public money paid to the [charter school] would be lost and never recovered,” the district said in a response to the charter’s lawsuit.
The dispute is yet another example of the messy process that can surround closing a charter school in Pennsylvania, leaving not just taxpayer money in limbo, but the education of students — whose prospects for the coming year remain unclear.
Eastern says 320 students have enrolled in the school. It has invited families to a meeting Thursday night.
“We need to make sure that our parents are informed and given the whole story," Barlow said. He said that in addition to not paying the charter, the district disenrolled Eastern students from its information system.
The district did not respond to a question on Eastern’s enrollment, or other questions about the lawsuit.
In July, the district sent Eastern parents a letter saying it was “very possible” the charter would not open for the 2019-20 school year. It provided a phone number and email for parents to seek information about a transition process for Eastern students into district schools.
“The School District’s number one priority, over the course of the entire nonrenewal process for Eastern, has been the education of its students,” spokesperson Lee Whack said in a statement Wednesday. “We encourage all students and their families to ensure that they have a plan in place for the likely event that Eastern is not able to open for the 2019-20 school year."
Zakiyyah Salahudin, a parent of two Eastern students who is also on the school’s board, said there was “no way in the world I would ever put my children into the public school system.”
Why are you depriving more than 300 “basically African American children of a future?” she asked Wednesday. “We made our choice. Our choice is Eastern. It makes my blood boil.”
Eastern, which enrolls students in grades 7-12, recently moved from East Falls to West Mount Airy. Barlow said the school moved because its lease in East Falls ended.
In its response to the lawsuit, the district says the state, rather than the court, is responsible for settling payment disputes between districts and charters. Eastern asked the state last month to withhold money from the district, but has not received a response.
Eastern says that without the district payments, it has lost $343,000 a month; the district says the payments would be less due to a decline in the school’s enrollment last year.