The Philadelphia School District says it will take a harder line on two issues that have caused confusion when charter operators take over traditional public schools: special education and facilities costs.

Even as the district tries to convert three more of its schools into charters, officials and parents alike are wading through confusion over "exceptions" that past administrations granted to outside managers involved in the district's Renaissance school turnaround initiative.

Take Clymer Elementary in North Philadelphia.

Nearly two years after turning Clymer over to Mastery Charter Schools, the district still has no written agreement for continuing Clymer's hugely expensive program for students with multiple disabilities.

Mastery plans to maintain the program under the expectation that it will receive a healthy subsidy, part of a "verbal agreement" with the district's prior administration - but one that current district leaders were not aware of.

In South Philadelphia, meanwhile, the district has yet to reach a long-term deal with charter operator Universal Companies for use of the Audenried High and Edwin Vare Middle school buildings. After fully subsidizing Universal's use of the facilities to the tune of $1.8 million in 2011-12, the district is swallowing hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses at the two schools this year.

District Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn promises a "more stringent" approach this year and in the future.

"There have been, under prior administrations, exceptions made," said Kihn. "That is no longer going to be the case."

Kihn said any charter operator awarded management of a Renaissance school this year will be required to bear the full cost of using any district building. Renaissance operators will also be required to fully maintain any special education programs currently in place, no matter how expensive.

"This is not business as usual," he said.

Some high-dollar exceptions

The Renaissance initiative began in 2010-11, under the leadership of the late Arlene Ackerman, then the district's superintendent.

To date, 17 struggling district schools have been taken over by outside managers as part of the Renaissance effort. As charters, those schools are publicly funded but managed by independent organizations. Unlike regular charter schools, though, Renaissance charters are required to serve the students from geographic attendance zones, like traditional neighborhood public schools.

Early analyses have pointed to sharp increases in test scores at many of the schools. Most Renaissance charters have also increased enrollments while drawing in more families from their immediate communities.

District officials have stressed that the cost of converting existing district schools to charters – somewhere between $1,000 and $1,500 per student, per year – is far cheaper than creating freestanding charters.

Prior to the 2011-12 school year, however, the people then running the district granted expensive exceptions to its two largest Renaissance charter operators.

Under Ackerman's leadership, Universal Companies was given free use of Vare Middle and Audenried High, a brand-new $55 million facility. After the deal was reported by the Public School Notebook and NewsWorks, the district and Universal negotiated a temporary new arrangement. This year, Universal is paying $500,000 combined at Audenried and Vare, less than one-third of the actual facilities costs at the schools.

That agreement expires at the end of May. Kihn said the district and Universal are currently negotiating a long-term agreement.

"We are committed to ensuring that any Renaissance operator pays their full freight in terms of facilities," he said.

Universal officials declined to comment.

Confusion over Clymer

Prior to the 2011-2 school year, while Lee Nunery II was acting superintendent, the district also agreed to allow Mastery to discontinue after one year Clymer's regional Multiple Disabilities Support (MDS) classrooms, which at the time served 12 students.

Mastery officials argued that the $55,000 per student, per year cost of serving the profoundly needy children, most of whom live outside Clymer's attendance zone, was prohibitive.

In 2011-12, Mastery raised over $300,000 in private funds to support the program, but officials said that was unsustainable over the long-term.

The reason: State law treats each charter as its own school district.

Courtney Collins-Shapiro, Mastery's chief innovation officer, said a large school district can absorb the cost of something like the MDS program inside an overall district budget that covers more than 145,000 students. Mastery, by contrast, has to come up with the money out of the budget of the 443-student Clymer, she said. That would mean between $800 and $900 less per child for each of the regular education students in the school.

"It's not fair to put that on the back of a little school," said Collins-Shapiro.

As late as mid-April of 2012, the plan still was for the district to take back responsibility for the MDS students at Clymer.

But advocates protested, saying the move would result in a traumatic disruption for some of the city's most vulnerable students. They also worried that such a move would set a troubling precedent by allowing a charter operator to opt out of serving an entire group of special-needs children.

The district and Mastery hastily scrambled to find a way to keep the current students with multiple disabilities at Clymer.

They reached the broad outlines of an agreement, but the details were never formalized in writing.

A June 8, 2012 memo from Thomas Knudsen, then the district's chief recovery officer, outlined a deal that would require Mastery to serve the children already in Clymer's MDS classrooms, but allow them to phase the program out over time.. In the interim, Mastery would receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual subsidies.

Last week, Kihn, who was not with the district in June, said he thought that was the agreement in place.

But Mastery officials were quick to correct him, saying that the June memo was from "early in the negotiations."

Both sides now agree that a different verbal agreement was struck later in the summer. Under that agreement, both sides agree, Mastery will continue to operate the MDS program at Clymer for the duration of its charter agreement.

District officials were unable to provide details of the financial agreement their predecessors had agreed to.

Collins-Shapiro said Knudsen had signed off on a subsidy for Mastery of between $18,000 and $27,000 per student in the MDS program, depending on the services each child received. The money, to be paid to Mastery for as long as it maintains the program, is to come through the Philadelphia Intermediate Unit, one of 29 administrative entities in the state that provides specialized services to school districts on a regional basis.

But no money has yet changed hands, said Collins-Shapiro, because Mastery is still waiting for a written agreement from the district.

It's been "tough" dealing with the constant turnover at 440 North Broad Street, she said.

"We've had three different sets of folks over the past three years that we've been dealing with at a leadership level, and three or four different people [in the district's charter schools office]," said Collins-Shapiro.

"There's something to be said for institutional memory."

This year's test

This year, Kenderton Elementary in North Philadelphia has emerged as the most likely flashpoint in the Renaissance conversion process.

It's no secret that Mastery hopes to be awarded management of the school, which is a feeder for nearby Mastery-Simon Gratz High.

Kenderton, which has 380 students, has a regional Autistic Support program. Some parents worry that a repeat of the confusion from Clymer could be in store for their children.

Both Mastery and district officials insist that won't be the case.

"If Mastery is lucky enough to be chosen by the families [of Kenderton] to operate that school," said Collins-Shapiro, "we will commit to running the Autistic Support program, without subsidy."

It costs far less per child to serve students with autism than those with multiple disabilities.

Kihn of the district said it will be a "requirement of any charter agreement with a Renaissance operator that they maintain the provisions for special needs students within their school."

In addition, said Kihn, the district is beefing up the performance targets for special education students that Renaissance operators must meet.

"We are not anticipating any exceptions to those rules," he said.

This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.