Discovery School faces loss of charter

Discovery Charter School. —SUBMITTED PHOTO

The School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission appear settled on the fate of Discovery Charter School, as the district will recommended to the SRC on Wednesday not to renew the charter of the West Philadelphia-based K-8. Officials with Discovery believe they are facing an uphill battle in having its charter renewed, and believe the SRC’s decision has little to do with academics.

Finances, the other demon in public education’s works, appears to be holding up Discovery’s renewal, as Discovery’s operators and the district are entangled in a back-and-forth over the responsibility for paying the per-pupil funding beyond Discovery’s cap; the district says Discovery needs to pony up, while Discovery says that is something the Pennsylvania Department of Education is obligated to pay for.

“This year, we enrolled 693 students; 620 was the cap number from our previous charter, granted in 2008,” explained Discovery Charter School Chairman Sean Stevens, who is also on next Tuesday’s ballot, running for Court of Common Pleas Judge. “Those 73 additional students were paid for by the PDE, and those 73 students are still enrolled and have been educated here since 2012.

“Essentially, [the district] is asking for money to be returned to them that was used to educate those students, but there’s additional legal issues regarding the cap,” Stevens continued. “Those students chose Discovery Charter, are educated at Discovery Charter, and the district is using the renewal process to make demands on that money. But for any students over that 620 cap, it was billed directly to that state. There is actually a process for the district to challenge the payments, and the district failed to avail itself to that remedy.”

Officials with the district paint a much different picture regarding the funds and Discovery’s plight, saying Discovery’s officials knowingly circumvented an agreement between the district and Discovery while also ignoring the clauses in the contract Discovery’s operators themselves signed.

“This is the year Discovery’s charter expires. The district sent a letter dated April 10 stating that the school had overenrolled students, even after they signed an agreement with the district that explicitly stated that the school would agree to a 620-student cap for the life of the charter,” explained School District of Philadelphia Spokesman Fernando Gallard. “The agreement also [stipulated] that the charter school acknowledges and agrees that neither the district nor the commonwealth should have any obligations whatsoever in excess amounts arrived from enrollment figures.

“[Discovery officials] decided to enroll more students than they agreed to, and on top of that, went to the state to ask for payment,” Gallard continued. “We then sent a letter to Discovery, stating that it had agreed not to enroll [over the cap] and to not go to the state and ask for payment. They have done both things.”

Discovery believes it has legal legs on which to prop its case, and is looking at the reimbursement and charter renewal as two separate issues. Discovery’s leaders accuse the district of trying to combining the two issues, thus making it easier for the district to deny charter renewal for Discovery.

While Stevens said Discovery only received the letter demanding payment “right before we were to go to an SRC hearing,” and believe the school has done more than enough to ensure its survival, including winning the support of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and U.S. Congressman Bob Brady, both of whom sent letters to the district backing Discovery’s academics and worth to the neighborhood.

“We are in our tenth year, and this is our second renewal. We have made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 8 of our ten years, and including the last four consecutive years. There is no stand district can take in terms on not renewing us, based on the qualifications,” said Discovery Charter School CEO Jackie Kelley, noting that Discovery is immensely popular, and it has more than 1,700 applications for the 33 slots available in its annual lottery. “The school district is the authorizer of charter schools, and [charters] will always have this dispute, since education is always linked to dollars and cents.”

Gallard said this wasn’t just tax money or money from some other subsidy; rather, the district has a very good reason to want that money back – educating its own students.

“Discovery got roughly $406,000 from the PDE, and the letter we sent stated Discovery had reimburse that amount and keep to the agreement,” Gallard said. “If not, the district will recommend for nonrenewal.

“The PDE gives us money every month or so to fund us, and [the PDE] basically took that $406,000 out of our funding,” Gallard continued, noting the district had this very same issue with another charter school, but that school decided to pay. “Discovery agreed to it. We can’t budget that way, as that money is counting toward education our own students.”

Kelley, for her part, cannot fathom Discovery losing its charter over a financial matter, when all the other metrics have been satisfied.

“I can’t even begin to tell you what it would be like if Discovery closes. We formed a great relationship with the community, and we initiated a $14 million bond for a new building,” Kelley said, noting the new school will be on Belmont and Parkside Avenues. “We chose this community because of the great relationship we have here. If the school district does not grant renewal, we have to go through a long legal process, and it’ll take more money to fight such a legal battle, thereby taking more money away from us that could be used to educate our children.”

 

Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at (215) 893-5745 or dwilliams@phillytrib.com.

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