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Charter operator's finances questioned in the past

ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania has borrowed $3.5 million from three of its schools and at least one school is a guarantor of a $5.4 million loan to a related APIRA organization.

ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania is no stranger to controversy when it comes to the management of its schools' finances.

In 2013, the School District of Philadelphia reviewed the audited financial statements for two of its schools, Pantoja and Eugenia de Hostos, and found operating deficits of $235,415 and $52,864, respectively.

ASPIRA has borrowed nearly $3.5 million from three of its schools - Olney, Pantoja and Stetson - as of June 30, 2013, according to its 990 tax filing from 2013. The figure is up about $180,000 from the previous year when ASPIRA owed $3.3 million to the three schools and de Hostos.

Meanwhile, Pantoja is the guarantor of a $5.4 million loan issued to ASPIRA Community Enterprises, a related entity that owns the property where ASPIRA headquarters and another school are located. Under the terms of the loan, if ASPIRA defaults, Pantoja is responsible for repaying the loan.

By law, a nonprofit charter operator running more than one school is supposed to manage them as separate nonprofit corporations. And school district officials told ASPIRA that in a letter obtained by the Daily News.

In the letter to ASPIRA CEO Alfredo Calderon dated July 25, a representative from the district's Charter School Office expressed concern about a number of issues, including ASPIRA's lending and borrowing of funds between its schools.

"Aspira, Pantoja, DeHostos, Stetson, and Olney are each separate Pennsylvania nonprofit corporations," wrote Peng Chao, who works in the Charter School Office. "The four charter schools are not subsidiaries of ASPIRA and cannot be operated as if they are subsidiaries."

Chao also urged Calderon to renegotiate bank loans involving one of its schools guaranteeing ASPIRA debt or the debt of another charter school.

"Such arrangements are not permissible," he wrote.

To date, ASPIRA has not responded to the letter, according to district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

"As of today, we still hold the very same concerns that are detailed in the letter," he said. "We are still looking and waiting for something from ASPIRA to address those very concerns."

If ASPIRA fails to come up with a plan, the district can refuse to renew the charters for their schools when they expire - every five years; or it can revoke each school's charter. If a school does not have a charter, it starts the legal process that may lead to closure.