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Staff departures threaten Germantown charter

Germantown Settlement Charter School, already fighting a district decision to close it, faces an exodus of staff and other problems that threaten its continued operation.

Germantown Settlement Charter School, already fighting a district decision to close it, faces an exodus of staff and other problems that threaten its continued operation.

More than 17 teachers and administrators have quit the troubled middle school since September, including the principal, who left 10 days ago. Former staffers say special-education students are not receiving services they need; some eighth-grade classrooms have had no heat.

The school has staved off an eviction order for today at its campus at 5538 Wayne Ave.

The cash-strapped charter scraped up the final installment of $13,538 Friday to satisfy a court judgment of more than $157,000 for past-due rent and fees.

In his resignation letter, principal Jeffrey Williams told the school's board that he was "concerned about the health and safety of the kids." He said he got no response.

Special-education teacher Shober Hairston, who quit last week, said he left because it was impossible to do his job. The school lacked resources and students' records were out of date.

"They're 'playing school' now," Hairston said. "It's sad. The parents don't know."

The school, which enrolls 440 students in grades five though eight, has appealed the Philadelphia School Reform Commission's October decision that it should shut down.

State and federal law enforcement agencies also are investigating allegations that the school diverted some of the $31 million in taxpayer money it received over nine years in order to prop up other nonprofits operated by its parent group, Germantown Settlement, a community-development organization with an array of nonprofit and for-profit subsidiaries.

Emanuel Freeman, who had vowed to appeal the decision to close the school, stepped down as president of the charter's board last week. He remains president of Germantown Settlement.

Parents said that some of the eighth-grade classrooms recently lacked heat for one day but that heat had since been restored.

Cornelia Swinson, the school's acting chair, wrote in a letter to The Inquirer that "the heating problem . . . involved only certain classrooms. The problem has long since been resolved."

She also wrote that the board was working diligently to fill staff vacancies. In the meantime, board members are acting as administrators, she said. She did not respond to several requests for an interview.

Parents say charter board members assured them at a meeting last week that the school would remain open. They said they were told that the heating problem was fixed and that qualified teachers and administrators would be hired.

Ora Frisby, whose grandson Zier Richardson Hartley is an eighth grader at the school, said the meeting addressed rumors swirling around the school. "The only concern I had really was the rumors and my grandson saying, 'We're not going to be here.' People make rumors, and the kids get upset."

District spokesman Barbara Farley said the recent problems with heat and teacher shortages were the type of concerns that prompted the SRC not to renew the charter. She said she could not comment further while the school's appeal was before the state board.

Benjamin W. Rayer, a city associate superintendent who oversees charter schools, said the district had monitored the charter's possible eviction closely and was told that the crisis had been resolved.

But the school's future remains in doubt.

The SRC has asked the state to dismiss the school's appeal for failing to file the proper documents. The case is to be heard on Feb. 24.

If the state agrees, the school will be forced to close, district officials said.

The charter still owes a bank just over $80,000 in rent because it has paid its $10,500 monthly rent only through June 2008, said David L. Braverman, attorney for Parke Bank, the mortgage holder.

He said the bank had no immediate plans to seek another court order for the money. He said Parke Bank, based in Sewell, had given the school a lot of extra time to make payments in order to avoid disrupting students.

In October, the SRC voted to deny the school a new five-year operating charter. The district said the school had not abided by the conditions of its charter; was plagued by fiscal mismanagement; had a history of poor academic performance; and failed to meet several state requirements, including having at least 75 percent of its teachers certified.

Eleven of the school's 29 teachers have quit since September. The school has no principal, vice principal, curriculum coordinator, or special-education director. Its top remaining administrator is the human resources director. It has no nurse or psychologist, and provides no speech or language services to students.

"The decision to leave was hard in light of the children and the staff, because I knew that leaving was going to put the school in a tailspin, but it had to be done," said Williams, who became principal in January 2007 when his predecesor left.

Williams said he sent a letter to the charter board in November saying that he would leave in January. He said he told board members that given the shortages of resources, he could not run the kind of quality program students needed.

Former staffers say that fewer than half of the school's 21 classroom teachers are certified. The rest are trying to obtain emergency certificates or are substitutes.

Troy Allen said his son Devon, an eighth grader, is doing well academically.

"The biggest problem is that some of his teachers are resigning," he said.

He said his son's high school applications were being held up because the substitute teachers cannot provide the personal references he needs.

Germantown Settlement Charter School, which opened in 1999, operates two campuses. Fifth and sixth graders are at the main campus at 4811 Germantown Ave. The 268 seventh and eighth graders attend class at the north campus on Wayne Avenue.

The charter rents the Wayne Avenue property from Greater Germantown Housing Development Corp., a sister nonprofit created by Germantown Settlement.

Greater Germantown and the school have been locked in a dispute about building repairs for more than a year, and the charter stopped paying rent. That led to the threatened eviction, because Greater Germantown had assigned all the rent to Parke Bank.