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Renewals roil Philly charter community

Provisions in proposed charter renewals have created so much turmoil the School Reform Commission will consider only 10 of the 26 charters next week that are up for renewal. Harrisburg takes note.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission was scheduled to decide Monday whether 23 charter schools should have their operating agreements renewed for five years.

But provisions of the proposed agreements have created so much turmoil that the SRC will consider fewer than half of the charters up for renewal next week.

The district told charter operators they had  until 1 p.m. Friday to return signed agreements to be considered during Monday's SRC meeting.  Thirteen charters refused.

They objected to what they viewed as an ultimatum, and cited confusion over the language and conditions the district is seeking to impose — including enrollment caps — that the charters said violate state law.

As of Friday, only 10 charters were on the SRC agenda, including Laboratory Charter School of Languages and Communications and Memphis Street Academy, which are facing nonrenewal.

Mike Wang, executive director of the Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, which supports charters, said the renewal documents represent "a big leap forward in terms of overreach" by the district.

The schools that have balked include Belmont and Inquiry charter schools in West Philadelphia, which are operated by the Belmont Charter Network.

"Our board met [Friday] and decided not to sign for either school," said Jennifer Faustman, CEO  of the network. "There is this lack of clarity around the terms they have put in the charters."

She said the schools received renewal documents only late last week and had little time to review them or ask questions.

Kevin Geary, a district spokesman, said many of the issues were not new, including requiring charters to sign documents before the SRC votes.

"May 1 is just one step in the process," Geary said.

The SRC can vote on the others later this spring.

Courtney Collins-Shapiro, chief innovation officer at Mastery Charter Schools, said neither Mastery-Pickett in Germantown nor Mastery-Cleveland in Tioga had signed their renewals. Mastery has 14 charters in the city with 11,000 students.

"We have been in Philadelphia for 16 years, and it feels like over the last five years, the charter office has become more and more intrusive in the daily operations of our schools," she said, adding that trend culminated with the documents Mastery received last week.

While Mastery favors accountability, Collins-Shapiro said, the mandates that the charter office is including in the renewals are bureaucratic requirements that have nothing to do with the education of children.

David Hardy, founding CEO of Boys Latin of Philadelphia,  said his school in Cobbs Creek had not  signed its renewal, either.

"They are starting to put terms in like when we have to meet as a board," he said. "It's micromanagement. It's not what the charter school law says."

Hardy added, "This is my fourth renewal. I've never seen anything like it."

Boys Latin's original charter agreement, he said, was two pages long; this renewal is 33 pages.

"Our attorney had more questions than answers," Hardy said. "We have to talk about this."

Wang said that for many charters, the most onerous provision was one that requires schools to agree to an enrollment maximum, not only for the term of the five-year renewals but also for any future renewals — unless both sides agree in writing.

"This is different,' he said. "It's a permanent cap."

Geary disagreed. "This has been in resolutions for charter actions for the last few years," he said.

The flap over the charter renewals has caught Harrisburg's attention.

"It appears once again, the city is thumbing its nose at thousands of parents, families and students," said  Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who wants the SRC to approve more charter schools. "We have been told the Office of Charter Schools sent their version of contract renewals to charters ... last Wednesday or Friday."

Miskin said a number of the provisions in the renewals have "no basis in law, yet the charters are feeling pressured to just sign."

"It does make you wonder as state budget talks are beginning. … What are they thinking?"