Friday, August 20, 2021

PA: Charter Operators Find Another Way To Take Over A District

 Chester Upland School District is located in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania. It has been through the wringer. More specifically, it has been through just about every wringer a school district can go through, from segregation through financial crises through an attack by charter interests. The full background can be found here, with following chapters here, here, and here.

Short version. The district's financial woes put it in receivership with the state. The local charter operator (a huge money-maker for a businessman named Vahan Gureghian) pushed the courts to open the district up to charter school takeover. 

For a brief moment this summer, it looked like the district had won a reprieve. The newest court-appointed receiver (and previous CUSD superintendent) Juan Baughn considered three proposals to take over CUSD elementary schools (throughout all of this, no charters have expressed interest in taking over the high school, which creates its own set of issues) and then rejected all of them, citing, in part, the strong voices of public opposition to the takeover.

And then Baughn resigned.

Chester Community Charter School (Gureghian's business) sent a letter to the court announcing that it intended to appeal the decision. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Education petitioned the court (Judge Barry Dozor) to appoint Dr. Michael Pladus to the post. Pladus has thirty years of experience as an educator as well as working as Chief Recovery Officer of CUSD. He had the support of the state and the district. However, as laid out in a press release from the Education Law Center, the night before the hearing in which Pladus was to be considered, the Friends of CCCS filed a motion proposing an alternative-- Nafis Nichols. Nichols had put his hat in the ring via private letter the week before.

Nafis Nichols is currently the Chief Financial Officer of the City of Chester. He's done some drug free counseling and community outreach work. He attended college but never graduated. The court heard testimony in his support from Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland and Senator John I. Kane, which is not super-unusual. But Judge Dozor also listened to the Friends of Chester Community Charter, Chester Charter School for the Arts, and Chester Community Charter Schools. That's nuts--to give the charter schools a major say in the selection of the person who will fashion the fate of the public, and make a decision the next time a charter takeover proposal appears, is a mind-boggling conflict of interest, like letting McDonalds have a major say to a zoning board hearing about whether a Burger King can open up.

The court order (dated August 13) notes that Nichols is a graduate of Chester High, that he meets the statutory requirements, that his "public and private sector experiences identifies [sic] strengths in management, book keeping, human resources, public relations, grant applications, contract negotiations, collective bargaining agreements..." Even the court is unable to pretend that Nichols knows anything at all about education and schools. But, of course, as you've already realized, the court passed over the state-approved education veteran in favor of the charter-supported receiver for the public school system.

The court also notes that the community is "very much engaged" and that community support is "crucial." Well, that's a problem.

CUSD is a district where trust has been trampled. Teachers have been asked to work without pay. Money just kind of disappears. City leaders honor the charter leaders, and school board members show up to celebrate charter school openings. Vahan Gureghian was the top contributor to Thaddeus Kirkland's election campaign (Kirkland, who used to be a state representative, has worked with Gureghian before). Judge Dozor reportedly said during the August 5 hearing that charter's are an integral part of the district "and it's going to remain that way." If CUSD has a champion anywhere in the local power structure, it's hard to see where.

The story of the charter attempted takeover has been a story of hidden back-room deals and a distinct lack of transparency, eventually revealing that the agendas being served are not the agenda of Chester's student or the Chester Upland public school system. The reprieve is over and it appears that charter operators have figured out more than one way to grab the profitable pieces of a dismantled, beleagured school district. 

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