Amid intense pressure from all sides, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted Wednesday night to approve five new charter schools from among the 39 applications at the end of an often tumultuous evening.
The successful applicants were offered three-year charters with a long list of conditions. SRC Chairman Bill Green said the charter operators and the commission have until May 31 to agree on terms.
The approved plans came from existing nonprofits that have operated successful charter schools in the city for years: KIPP, Mastery, Freire, Independence, and MaST.
The five-hour meeting in the packed auditorium at Philadelphia School District headquarters on North Broad Street came to a stop several times when angry demonstrators interrupted speakers. When the first vote granting a charter came, sections of the audience erupted. Shouting demonstrators massed in the center aisle, and four of them were led out of the district auditorium by police and charged with disorderly conduct.
"What you are doing is beyond reprehensible!" one shouted.
Several parents implored the commission to grant more approvals to help thousands of families that are on waiting lists for places in charter schools.
Claire Richardson, a parent of a fourth grader, said she had been homeschooling her son and immediately signed a petition to support Mastery when she heard that the charter operator had applied to open two new schools in North Philadelphia.
"We are the parents who are on waiting lists to get into better schools," she said.
Wednesday was the first time the commission had approved new traditional charter schools since 2007. Since that time the SRC had authorized converting low-performing district schools into Renaissance charter schools and has also expanded existing schools.
The five-member commission navigated a tricky path. It ignored pleas from education advocates, Gov. Wolf, and many local and state politicians and candidates - including five of the six Democrats running for mayor - who called for a moratorium on new charters until the district has solved its financial crisis.
Wolf said in a statement that he "continues to believe that the district's financial situation cannot responsibly handle the approval of new charter schools."
Absent new state or local funding, the district will face a deficit estimated at $80 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The commission also did not comply with the expectations of House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who said he expected approval of 16 to 27 new charters.
Further complicating the calculus, the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership, which is committed to raising $100 million for high-quality education, had announced it would offer the district $25 million over three years to help cover the expansion costs. It also offered an additional $10 million to help the district overhaul its struggling schools.
The partnership said it believed each additional charter seat costs the district $2,000. The district says the true cost is $7,000.
Several speakers urged the SRC to reject the money.
"Are members of the SRC appointed to serve the interests of wealthy anonymous donors who pony up a $35 million bribe offered by the Philadelphia School Partnership?" said Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and a founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.
The city's 84 charter schools enroll 62,358 students - 31 percent of the 204,358 students in the district.
With its votes, the SRC approved Independence West Charter School to open in 2016 with 300 K-4 students; MaST, Roosevelt campus in the Northeast with 400 students in the first year; Mastery Charter's Gillespie campus with 336 K-5 students in 2016; TECH-Freire, a 9-12 school in North Philadelphia with 300 students in 2016; and KIPP Dubois, a 9-12 school with 280 students in the fall.
Green said the charter decisions would have "a limited impact on the five-year plan" and no impact on the 2015-16 budget.
He said he had not negotiated with Philadelphia School Partnership over its $25 million offer, and now that charter approvals have been granted, would leave it to district leadership to do so.
"We really want the district's overall priorities to be at the front and center of that," Green said.
Commissioner Marjorie Neff did not vote to authorize a single charter school - not because of finances, she said, but because of the applications themselves.
"There were deficiencies in all of them," Neff said.
Green said the SRC was well aware of the pressure from politicians on both sides, but insisted applications were decided on merit alone.
But, he said, "every single person who was applying pressure in one way or another said that we would get additional resources. We're looking for them to deliver on their promises to us."
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said it was crucial for the district to continue pushing for additional resources.
"We cannot have a situation where any of our children are going to have less because of this," Hite said.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said the decisions disgusted him.
"It's disappointing and it's frightening," he said. "It translates to fewer nurses, librarians, and counselors for children in district schools. To knowingly increase our deficit was really a very, very bad decision."
In October, the district announced it would accept new charter applications to comply with provisions of the new state law that authorized a $2-per-pack cigarette tax for city schools. The measure also gives rejected applicants the right to appeal to the state Charter Appeal Board in Harrisburg.
Meanwhile, the Pa. Coalition of Public Charter Schools, which represents charter schools across the state, complained that only five new schools were approved.
A coalition spokesman said the organization was "outraged but not surprised that the Philadelphia School Reform Commission has denied most new charter school applications."
He said the coalition expects that the denied charter applicants will appeal to the state Charter Appeal Board.
These proposals were accepted by the SRC subject to certain conditions, not all of which were disclosed at Wednesday's meeting. Conditions must be agreed upon by May 31.