North Philly parents suspicious of postponed charter school election

    Over the past four weeks, the Philadelphia School District has been making its case about why it chose two specific schools for charter school conversion.

    In meetings over the past four weeks, the Philadelphia School District has been making a case for why it chose Edward Steel elementary in Nicetown and Luis Muñoz-Marín elementary in Fairhill for charter school conversion.

    Parents were set to vote on Thursday, but on Monday night, they learned that the district was going to push the election back a month at Muñoz-Marín (but not at Steel), saying some have complained that the process was moving too quickly.

    Some parents are suspicious the election is being delayed because voters would have rejected the charter. The school district and proposed charter operator say it’s about not rushing the process.

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    “I agree…if the parents feel that they need a little more time, give it to them,” said ASPIRA‘s executive director, Alfredo Calderon, which is the proposed operator for Muñoz-Marín.

    When pressed if he lobbied for the change, Calderon said he did contact district leadership.

    “I did.” he said, “As the executive director of ASPIRA, I said well, ‘The parents are saying the process was a little rushed, would you consider it?'”

    “They are extending the time only for their own convenience,” said Muñoz-Marín’s principal, Ximena Carreno. “They know we are winning…so they want to extend the time.”

    “It’s a trick that they’re playing on us,” said Vivian Rodriguez, a retired district teacher who lives in the neighborhood and often volunteers at the school. “It’s a racket, like my mother used to say, and I know that word in Spanish and in English, and it means they’re playing us, you know?”

    Philadelphia School District leaders say the change was necessary because Muñoz-Marín didn’t have a functioning school advisory council for much of the past month. Its newly formed SAC has met once since the district announced the possibility of Renaissance charter conversion in early April.

    The Steel vote will remain on May 1, the district says, because the Steel SAC has been meeting regularly.

    Councilwoman makes announcement

    Parents at Muñoz-Marín got the news not from district leadership, but from City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, who represents the neighborhood. She says she’s heard from at least a dozen parents who complained about the compressed time-line.

    During the announcement, Quiñones-Sanchez got into a heated exchange with Rodriguez, who complained for all the auditorium to hear that the district had botched the voting process.

    “I am not the district,” Quiñones-Sanchez said into the microphone. “I am here to say that parents want time and parents deserve the time.”

    In the late 1990s, Quiñones-Sanchez was ASPIRA’s executive director, a point decried by some critics in the crowd.  

    Quiñones-Sanchez defended her relation with the organization – listing a resume of accomplishments that include founding the city’s first bilingual charter school, ASPIRA’s Hostos. The councilwoman says she no longer sits on ASPIRA’s board or has financial ties to the organization.

    “For transparency purposes I don’t sit on boards, because I have to represent all schools,” she said to the auditorium.

    Philadelphia Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn defended Quiñones-Sanchez’s presence to the crowd.

    “There’s nothing unusual about the councilwoman being here,” he explained. “We actually invited the councilwoman to come, and I don’t want there to be any mistake about that. She did not come on her own.”

    Quiñones-Sanchez, who has proposed providing the school district with a larger share of the city’s real-estate-tax collections, called herself “the person most vocal about school education funding in council.”

    “Every year I’ve led the charge for more public education funding,” she said to the audience. “That’s my record. It speaks for itself.” 

    In an interview outside of the auditorium, Quiñones-Sanchez said her only intent was to have the Muñoz-Marín community fully understand the issues.  She charged that existing school staff, hoping to save their own jobs, have created a toxic environment at the community meetings that turns parents away from engaging in the process.

    “There’s a lot of parents who refuse to come to these meetings, who’ve called me and called others and have said, ‘I’d like to make an educated decision, but I’m not going to go to a meeting where people are screaming and people aren’t listening.'”

    After some prodding, Quiñones-Sanchez acknowledged her support for ASPIRA.

    “I think ultimately that the parents will see that ASPIRA provides them a better option given the reality of the district funding,” she said, “but they need to make that decision with the accurate information.”

    Committee of Seventy weighs in

    Postponing the election smells fishy to Zack Stalberg, president of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy

    “Ten or 12 calls does not seem like an outpouring or a demand by the public for a delay,” said Stalberg.

    “People anticipated the election to take place at a certain time and it should have taken place,” he said. “The larger issue here is public officials being involved in charter school operations.”

    Stalberg worries that Quiñones-Sanchez is too close to ASPIRA and thinks politicians should steer clear of involving themselves in situations which pit the school district against charter schools.

    “The School Reform Commission runs the schools, and state representatives should not be involved in manipulating the decisions, and city council people should not be involved in manipulating the decisions,” he said. 

    “And it definitely raises a question when the councilwoman in this case has a relationship with the organization that wants to run the school…This certainly seems as if it’s a last minute change aimed at getting the result that Councilwoman Sanchez wanted.”

    For Maxi Martinez, a grandparent supportive of ASPIRA, the delay is not that big of a deal.

    “It’s not going to make a difference. It’s still the parents’ decision,” she said. “It’s still going to be the same thing. It’s just giving them more time to get informed.”

    But for Stalberg, although the extension may give some parents a better sense of the issues, there’s a real worry that the scheduling change will affect turnout.

    “A factor here of course is you’re coming into summer, and once that starts to happen the participation level and the interest level falls off,” he said. “There’s a reason, for instance why the primary election doesn’t happen in June.”

    District officials say that they will use the time extension to hold more public meetings, including ones specifically related to special-education programing and and bilingual learning.

    The district is expected to announce the new election date later this week. Whenever the election is held, because the parents’ vote is advisory, not binding, the School Reform Commission will have final say over the fate of the school.

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