PA Charter Management CEO Not Publicly Accountable for “Sealed” Sexual Harassment Settlement
A major problem with the charter school slogan, “charter schools are public schools,” is that charter schools are operated by management organizations that are either private businesses or nonprofits. What this means is that charter schools can call themselves “public” because they take public money even as their management orgs can call themselves “private” when they wish to hide information about their administrative practices (and their administrators) from public view.
Moreover, unless the state law specifically details the charter management organization as an entity held responsible, the charter management organization will enjoy almost-guaranteed free rein.
Such is the case of Pennsylvania’s ASPIRA charter management org (see ASPIRA’s 2013 tax form here) and its CEO, Alfredo B. Calderon, who apparently paid another, now-former, ASPIRA exec $350,000 to make a sexual harassment charge go away.
In September 2016, the mayor of Philadelphia “quietly removed” Calderon from the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (pun obvious to some) as a result of news of Calderon’s settlement.
The terms of the settlement are sealed; Calderon continues to serve as CEO, and ASPIRA is fighting publication of the terms of the settlement by claiming that as a nonprofit, ASPIRA is a private agency, as FOX29 reports:
PHILADELPHIA – The operator of several area charter schools, supported with your tax dollars, will get a hard look from Pennsylvania’s top fiscal watchdog after a FOX 29 Investigates report.
The auditor general also has strong words for the group’s CEO, FOX 29 Investigative Reporter Jeff Cole says.
ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania CEO Alfredo B. Calderon replied, “Sir, I am willing to set up a meeting, sir.”
After viewing our report – revealing that city charter school operator ASPIRA settled and sealed a sexual harassment claim made by a former top educator against its CEO – Pennsylvania’s fiscal watchdog was blunt.
“Should he continue to work for this entity that oversees charters in this city after this situation?” Cole asked.
“I believe the answer to that is no,” Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said.
“You believe they should have fired him?” Cole asked.
“Yes,” DePasquale said.
But Calderon, who according to tax records earns over $200,000 yearly, was not fired. He has remained the leader of the nonprofit, which receives tens-of-millions in tax dollars to run five charter schools. …
The auditor general says state’s charter school law needs to be reformed to force charter school operators, like ASPIRA, to open up about its practices and be subject to the state’s Open Records Law.
FOX 29 Investigates has made an open records request for any settlements ASPIRA has made similar to what it did with Nunez.
ASPIRA is fighting that, claiming “it is not a public agency.”
In response to the FOX29 report revealing news of Calderon’s hidden sexual harassment settlement, DePasquale plans to “have a through audit” of some of the ASPIRA schools.
What DePasquale cannot do is conduct a thorough audit of the org controlling the schools, ASPIRA.
ASPIRA’s being in the PA news is not new. In 2014, the question arose as to whether ASPIRA was using all of its public funding as intended, or, as NBC Philadelphia reports, “whether some was being siphoned off for other purposes.” As of the 2014 writing, ASPIRA had not satisfactorily presented is financial records to Philly school district’s charter school office even as it was facing the question of charter renewal beginning in 2015.
The problem involves the layers of charter management and individual schools:
The heart of the problem: A web of interconnected organizations
…For the district to get the answers it seeks, [Philly charter school office rep, Lauren] Thum said, it would need to take a closer look at ASPIRA of Pennsylvania’s books, but so far the nonprofit has not complied with the district’s requests. District officials are entitled access to financial and academic information about ASPIRA’s individual schools, but the nonprofit has balked at providing access to the books of the parent organization.
“We can ask, and are asking, but whether or not they have to fulfill that request is up for debate,” Thum said.
At the heart of the district’s concern is the complex network of interlocking entities that ASPIRA uses to manage its schools. Citing “audited financials,” officials say that each of ASPIRA’s five charters has been set up as an independent nonprofit subsidiary of ASPIRA itself, but each of the five also uses the same board of trustees.
The district is concerned that ASPIRA is improperly shuffling money around those various subsidiaries and the parent organization. Thum said the district has many questions about the “management agreements” that guide the way money flows among these subsidiaries.
ASPIRA of Pennsylvania “can dictate the content of those agreements, and the amount of money that flows to ASPIRA, and then what they do with that money,” Thum said. “And we have concerns about how much money is being sent up to ASPIRA, and then our ability to effectively know what they do with those dollars.”
In March 2015, Philly.com reported that renewal of one of ASPIRA’s schools, Stetson, entailed overhaul of the board (and the overbearing control that ASPIRA exercised):
The charter office called for:
* The removal of three nonparent board members by April 30 and the installation of a new board by June 30. Thum directs ASPIRA not to get “directly involved in the recruitment and selection of the new [board].”
* Amendment of bylaws to eliminate a provision that allows ASPIRA to appoint the majority of the board.
* Board members to attend training sessions including conflicts of interest, code of ethics and the Sunshine Law.
* A treasurer with a financial or auditing background.
The charter office also highlighted some financial concerns including a $1.9 million “bridge loan” from Stetson to ASPIRA. Thum notes that while the school loans ASPIRA money and its payments for ASPIRA’s services have increased, the school’s request for staffing, technology and other resources “go unfilled.”
* The board to request a written explanation from ASPIRA about the $1.9 million and outline a plan to repay the school by June 30.
* The board to provide a list of individuals with access to debit/credit cards and a copy of the school’s usage policy to be approved by the ASPIRA board by Feb. 28.
The degree to which the board’s request was fulfilled apparently did not make the newspapers. However, according to the school’s website, Stetson is apparently still operating. Still, the ASPIRA webpage for all schools includes outdated information (e.g., links to 2015-16 school calendar and 2015-16 board meeting calendar) and no such info for 2016-17.
In May 2016, Philly.com notes the problems with Pennsylvania’s charter school law, which apparently did not anticipate the concept of a charter management organization operating multiple schools– and the potential for conflicts of interest as charter management orgs call the shots, with individual schools at the mercy of the charter management org:
Controller Alan Butkovitz has been calling for an overhaul of the state’s 1997 charter law since his office released its first charter report in 2010. He said the issues at Aspira and Universal provide more evidence of why change is needed.
Butkovitz said that when the law was enacted nearly 20 years ago, it “contemplated mom-and-pop charter schools, and now they are large bureaucracies.”
The 23-page report said legislators should change the law “to empower local school districts with greater oversight and compliance authority over education service providers and their associated entities.”
Butkovitz said the law must also make clear “that charter school trustees cannot serve on the boards of organizations that have direct business with the individual school board.”
The report said that while state law requires charter schools to be operated by independent boards, that was “not the case with these ‘charter school districts.’ ”
The charter management organizations, the report said, are running the schools, which “have no authority to make independent financial decisions or other significant operational decisions, and appear to be shell corporations of the parent education service provider.” …
The report said state law “does not specifically authorize school districts to monitor or hold accountable education service providers such as Aspira… . . . . Nonetheless, these providers receive huge amounts of taxpayer funds to operate charter schools. There are no obvious restraints over these charter school operator organizations and how they choose to allocate millions of dollars in public money received from the school district as well as state and federal governments.”
As it stands in Pennsylvania, charter management organizations like ASPIRA are able to exploit weaknesses in the state’s charter school law.
ASPIRA is able to legally operate a web of self-serving conflicts of interest; it is able to control charter school boards (and, by extension, charter school finances) and remain out of reach of any state oversight authority.
Why, the ASPIRA CEO can even settle a sexual harassment issue out of the public eye and have his org’s appointed board (a board that escapes PA accountability) choose to keep him in his job.