Marathon SRC meeting revolves around charter conversion proposals, renewals

 The Philadelphia School Reform Commission hosted a marathon meeting Thursday night featuring a slate of nearly 70 public speakers. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission hosted a marathon meeting Thursday night featuring a slate of nearly 70 public speakers. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission hosted a marathon meeting Thursday night featuring a slate of nearly 70 public speakers. The bulk of the testimony showcased opposition to the district’s proposal to convert three of its elementary schools into neighborhood-based charters.

Opponents started early. Before proceedings began, a coalition organized by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools protested in the atrium of district headquarters, shouting, “Dr. Hite, we will fight,” above the piped in classical music.

Jay Cooke Elementary Home and School Association President Deborah Azore said she didn’t want to see the last traditional public school taken from her Logan neighborhood.

“You can’t just do what you want and keep it all charter. What do we have for public? We have nothing,” she said.

That sentiment was expressed by many of the speakers during a four hour SRC meeting.

“We can fix it. If you give us a chance we can restore John Wister back to the glorious educational institution that it once was before,” said Germantown parent Kenya Nation Holmes, who called on the district to invest in Wister as a community school.

Pamela Williams, a West Philadelphia pastor, chided the district for labeling Huey elementary a failure after it had been stripped of resources in the wake of decreased funding.

“I will shut this city down,” she yelled at the top her lungs after her microphone was cut. “Huey school will not be a charter school. I promise you that.”

Charter proponents came out in force as well.

“Taxpaying parents deserve the security of knowing their children are safe, well educated and fully equipped to participate in today’s global economy.” said Crystal Morris, parent of two Boys Latin students. “Put the taxpayers resources where there has been a proven result. Continue to fund quality charter schools.”

The SRC won’t decide on the fate of these conversions, though, until February.

On the docket Thursday evening were the fates of a few charter schools seeking renewal, including Ad Prima. The charter caught headlines in recent years when founder Dorothy June Brown was indicted, accused of defrauding it and other schools that she headed of more than $6 million.

On most counts, the jury in the first trial against Brown, who’s 78, was deadlocked. A federal judge recently delayed the start of the retrial due to questions about her mental competency — whether she is showing signs of dementia.

The district has chided Ad Prima for a laundry list of offenses including poor fiscal management and nefarious enrollment practices.  It was accused of holding enrollment meetings in inconvenient spots to only enroll “desirable” students.

At the meeting, Commissioner Bill Green urged the rest of the panel to reject renewing Ad Prima’s charter.

“It appears, just from all the red buttons up there, that we are potentially rewarding very bad behavior by offering a charter to this school,” said Green. “I’m very concerned about the precedent it sets for someone to have horrible governance, receive indictments, etcetera, and then agree to reform just because they have positive academic results.”

Only chairwoman Marge Neff was swayed, and Ad Prima — which now has new leadership and a new board — was renewed with conditions.

In an interview after the meeting, Sylvia Simms, who voted yes along with Feather Houstoun and Farah Jimenez, said she valued the school’s high academic record over its past poor management.

The SRC voted against renewal of New Media Technology Charter School.  Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School received a new agreement after a years long battle. After the SRC originally pursued non-renewal, its decision was overturned by the state charter appeals board.

SRC members agreed this time with the logic that it would be better for the SRC to set the terms of the charter rather than the CAB.

Earlier in the day, Superintendent William Hite sent a letter to district staff explaining that he would not cancel the contract with the private firm that has so far woefully underperformed in providing substitute teachers.  Hite said even though the company has failed to deliver so far, scrapping the contract would do nothing to boost the fill-rate in the near term.

Source 4 Teachers promised a 75 percent fill rate on the first day of school, and 90 percent rate by January. The best it’s done so far is about 30 percent — causing havoc in many schools. Teachers have been deprived of prep periods, while some students have had classes that have lacked a full-time teacher all year.

“I want to publicly acknowledge that Source 4 Teachers has underperformed. We have got to do better and we will do better,” company president Kendley Davenport testified at Thursday night’s School Reform Commission meeting. “We knew that this would be one of the biggest challenges that our company has ever faced. But we’re confident that Source 4 Teachers is the right partner for the district, and we’re committed to the development of a successful, long-term solution.”

Based on Source 4 Teachers’ shortcomings, the district says it will again assume responsibility for filling long-term sub positions and administrator vacancies.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.