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School Reform Commission members deliberate over 39 charter school applications. Credit: Guyrandy Jean-GIlles , Guyrandy Jean-GIlles

Signs were confiscated, protesters were led out by police and both charter school applicants and opponents made last minute appeals on Wednesday evening.

At the peak of the testimony, about 150 people filled the auditorium during a special meeting of the commission to announce the decision at the headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia. Just five of the 39 charter applications were granted by Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC). The city already has 84 charter schools in operation.

Applications approved were for Independence Charter School West, KIPP Dubois Charter School, MaST Community Charter School, Mastery Charter School - Gillespie Campus and TECH Friere Charter School.

None of the three applications for charter schools proposed within Penn’s zip code were approved. Penn alum Michael Karp and his group proposed a high school counterpart to their existing 1-8 charter school near Penn, but their application was denied in a 3-2 vote. Karp said he was “very disappointed” with the decision.

“These people know I do a good job, it’s really sad for me,” Karp said referring to the SRC. “I was hoping that they would have done more than they did.”

The application for the Philadelphia Music and Dance Academy Charter School, proposed to be located in the former West Philadelphia High School building as a collaboration with musician Lionel Richie, was also denied.

Any of the rejected applicants are free to appeal the decision to the Charter Appeals Board — a product of a stipulation tacked onto the $2-a-pack cigarette tax legislation passed for Philadelphia last September. Karp said he and his team plan to appeal on their application.

This is the first time in seven years the district held an open-call for charter applications. The cigarette tax also included a provision that mandated the school district accept charter applications yearly.

During the meeting, district security confiscated signs that attendees had brought with them, something that does not normally happen. Several protesters were led out of the auditorium following the first school approval after police in the room threatened arrest if the crowd did not disperse.

After each applicant had three minutes to speak in front of the commission, pre-registered public comment followed. Penn alumna Helen Gym, who recently announced her candidacy for City Council, told the SRC that for them to consider the “reckless expansion of charters” would be “not only morally repugnant, it is economically insane,” in light of many of the financial strains put on the district and schools due to the budget deficits over the past several years.

Penn sociology professor Melissa Wilde, a Jackson Elementary School parent, encouraged the SRC to deny all 40 applications. “It would trouble me as a sociologist, but it would bother me more as a mom,” she said, citing the cuts that schools faced due to budget shortfalls. 

“Please, don’t move us further away from our goals by approving any of these applications,” she said to the SRC.

KIPP charter school student Danielle Freeman spoke about how she struggled with discipline issues throughout middle school, but is now at the top of her class in high school with the support of her “family” at KIPP, despite struggling with homelessness.

“KIPP has given me the option to have a better life,” she said.

In a surprise move in late January, the Philadelphia School Partnership, a pro-charter nonprofit, offered the district $35 million to defray the costs of opening more charters — an attempt to address one of the main criticisms of opening new charter schools.

The district has made no decision on whether they will accept the sum. Spokesman Fernando Gallard told the Philadelphia Inquirer that half a million dollars is closer to the amount that would have been needed to decrease financial strain on the district if they were to open up 15,000 charter seats.

In the first week in February, the SRC tried to put off the vote until June by asking applicants to sign a waiver allowing them more time to decide past the state-mandated 75 days following the first pubic hearing. With only a few applicants signing the waiver, the district went ahead with the original plan for Wednesday’s vote.

The five applications granted received three-year charter agreements with conditions which have to be agreed upon by May 31, 2015.

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