Philly School District vs. ASPIRA: Second warning for charter

 John B. Stetson School in Kensington is run by charter operator ASPIRA INC. (<a href=Image via Google Maps) " title="Stetson" width="640" height="360"/>

John B. Stetson School in Kensington is run by charter operator ASPIRA INC. (Image via Google Maps)

The Philadelphia School District is telling one its largest charter school operators to shape up — or risk losing one of its schools.

According to documents obtained by the Philadelphia Daily News, district officials want charter provider ASPIRA of Pennsylvania to meet 17 conditions if the nonprofit is to continue running Stetson Elementary in North Philadelphia.

The request is part of a long-simmering conflict between the district and ASPIRA, the nonprofit running five Philadelphia schools with more than 3,000 students. In the past, it’s been held up as a model of success. And last year, district officials recommended that ASPIRA take over North Philadelphia’s Muñoz Marín Elementary as part of the Renaissance process, telling parents that it was a high-quality provider with a proven track record. (That plan was eventually scuttled after a parent vote rejected the charter.)

But this year, district officials have changed their tune, revealing serious concerns about a number of ASPIRA’s financial and management practices, and asking the nonprofit to change them.

Many of the district’s concerns center around ASPIRA’s practice of shuffling money among its various internal entities that share board members, for example, by transferring funds from individual schools to the parent nonprofit. District officials reported in December that they cannot be certain exactly what the nonprofit has been doing with its money.

At that time, asked if ASPIRA was diverting student funds for other purposes, the charter school office’s Lauren Thum said, “We can’t say for sure whether or not that’s happening.”

The current requests to ASPIRA regarding Stetson suggest that the district’s concerns haven’t changed. Among other things, officials would like ASPIRA to reorganize Stetson’s board of trustees so that ASPIRA doesn’t directly control it, remove several “non-parent” board members, add a treasurer with a background in finances and audits, and explain a $1.9 million “bridge loan” made by Stetson to ASPIRA.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard confirmed the accuracy of the Daily News report, but would not comment on the ongoing conversations with ASPIRA.

However, he did say that if ASPIRA fails to comply with the district’s requests, the district’s charter office could recommend a non-renewal of ASPIRA’s charter for Stetson.

“In general, when a charter school is in this situation, if they do not agree to the provisos that have been asked of them, then the charter school office could move forward with a recommendation of non-renewal,” Gallard said.

That, in turn, could trigger months of hearings and appeals.

District officials have asked ASPIRA to make changes by the end of the school year. ASPIRA officials had no comment on the district’s warning, but in the past have denied any financial mismanagement.

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