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(This entry was cross-posted at the Public School Notebook)
Recent revelations about the role of School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie in the awarding of a school contract that could be worth up to $60 million demand a full investigation from state agencies and a response from Mayor Nutter.
According to a Public School Notebook/NewsWorks investigation, Archie used his role as SRC chair to effectively nullify the decision to give Martin Luther King High School to one charter organization and lobbied instead in favor of the nonprofit Foundations, Inc. – even though Archie acknowledged a conflict of interest that required his recusal from voting. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman claims her top deputy was “shocked” by what went on in one meeting run by Archie and is distancing herself from the affair. Yet her statements seem to contradict what the superintendent said she previously knew and when she knew it, and they don't explain Ackerman's own lack of action.
Foundations, which is closely tied with State Rep. Dwight Evans and has been represented by Archie’s law firm, withdrew its bid from King High School last week following the Notebook/NewsWorks investigation, citing a climate of “unrelenting hostility” from a “vocal minority.”
Foundations’ withdrawal shouldn’t mean the SRC and District officials get to retreat behind closed doors. Instead, Foundations’ decision should strengthen the resolve to investigate what increasingly looks like serious wrongdoing.
- On March 16, the SRC voted to give King High School to Mosaica Turnaround Partners, a for-profit, Atlanta-based charter school organization. Immediately after the SRC voted, Commissioner Archie joined Rep. Evans in a private meeting at District headquarters with Mosaica’s John Porter. After denying knowledge of the meeting details for over a month, District officials finally admitted that Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery was present and had been ordered by Archie to call in Porter. That encounter was clearly influential. Before it occurred, Porter said he was “ecstatic” to win the King vote. Less than 24 hours later, Porter abruptly withdrew Mosaica’s bid.
- A parent volunteer with the King SAC reported that in a one-on-one encounter with Archie on April 12, Archie told her she “did not have a choice” in what he called “a done deal” at King. The parent said Archie offered to be personally accountable for Foundations, including writing into the deal certain provisions the SAC wanted. The parent declined Archie’s offer.
- The next day, members of the King SAC met with the full SRC and Ackerman in a closed-door meeting. SAC members reported that Archie seemed to question the validity of their vote, while the other commissioners and Ackerman remained mostly silent on King’s management. The two SAC members in the room were brought to tears during the meeting. They said afterwards they were “furious” with Archie’s role and demanded an investigation.
In failing to raise any questions about Archie’s or its own behavior, the SRC demonstrates a clear double standard around conflict of interest. Last year, the SRC halted plans for West Philadelphia High School, citing a “conflict of interest” complaint against parents who had received an $8 an hour stipend to improve parent engagement from a subcontractor of one of West's potential turnaround partners. The District’s Inspector General even investigated the parents, a probe that went nowhere.
At the time, Ackerman was quoted as saying:
"If there's a perception or appearance of a conflict of interest, wouldn't you want this District to do something about it?” asked Ackerman.
Yet, weeks after Archie’s troubling involvement at King High School, no similar action has been taken.
There are still contradictory accounts of people's roles and their actions, or lack thereof.
Regarding the private meeting with Mosaica's Porter, Archie last week issued a brief statement acknowledging his presence “in his capacity as School Reform Commission chairman.” However, he has refused repeated requests by the Notebook/NewsWorks to answer questions about his overall conduct. Other SRC commissioners remain equally silent.
Commissioner Archie and the entire SRC must answer questions about their role in this process. Archie also needs to disclose his specific conflict of interest that required his recusal from voting but apparently not his actions behind closed doors.
The superintendent’s predictable habit of blaming others and refusing to accept responsibility can't be tolerated as a shield. Ackerman, who earlier denied any knowledge of what happened in that fateful meeting, now claims her deputy Nunery never provided her with details - and still has not to this day. Ackerman needs to explain why she continued go along with Foundations’ bid until the Notebook/NewsWorks investigation became public.
At this point, the state Inspector General or the state Attorney General’s office must conduct an investigation into the SRC, which is a state body. Depending on the results of that investigation, further action may need to happen from agencies higher up.
Mayor Nutter, who has often distanced himself from the District’s myriad problems, needs to address this growing scandal immediately. Archie was Nutter’s choice for SRC commissioner in 2009. The best thing would be for the Mayor to quietly ask Archie to step aside and lead the call for a full investigation. In the midst of a critical state budget, Philadelphia can’t afford to let questionable behavior overshadow the effort to reinstate education funding by Harrisburg.
Allowing the corrupted process at King to remain uninvestigated will further erode public confidence in the integrity of this administration to steer itself through yet another crisis.
It’s not often a window opens into the backdoor politicking that sheds a light on all the terrible decisionmaking in Philadelphia.
That window blew wide open with this stunning interview State Rep. Dwight Evans gave to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook last week. In the interview, Evans boasted of his effective bullying of the School Reform Commission, Supt. Arlene Ackerman and a competitor in a high stakes game of school operations over Martin Luther King High School.
“I made this case to the [SRC] chairman, I made it to the superintendent, I made it to all of them. I said it to Mosaica – I said it to them all,” said Evans. “I said there’s been a lot of work and effort. ... I just said, 'Look – we have a plan here.'
“I was like a bulldog on a bone,” said Evans.
The quick backstory: State Rep. Dwight Evans was a leading architect behind the state takeover of the Philadelphia Public Schools, and a company with which he has close ties, Foundations Inc., became one of the District’s first EMOs (education management organizations) as well as a major recipient of millions of dollars in school service contracts. Foundations has run Martin Luther King High School for the last eight years, taking in management fees as it ran the school. The school has not done well, to say the least, and its poor academic performance placed it on a list for “turnaround,” a national model of restructuring.
According to District policy, the school formed a School Advisory Council which had parent and school representatives ranking the options for King, which the District unilaterally determined would become a charter school. There were only two choices (a third option pulled out before the vote): Foundations or Mosaica Schools, Inc. The choice, according to parents who spoke to the Notebook, was easy. 8-1, they voted for Mosaica and against Foundations. The School Reform Commission accepted the SAC’s decision last Wednesday.
Cue Rep. Evans in his own words:
Evans: I will tell you, I had a very strong strategy and plan. And I believe I made a very convincing argument.”
Notebook: When after the vote?
Evans: I talked to the chairman, I talked to all of them. I made a very convincing [inaudible]. I showed ‘em all.”
In an interview with the Daily News earlier this week, Evans denied any involvement in the decisionmaking and accused the Notebook of misquoting him. And the Notebook does what any professional journalistic outfit would do; it provides a transcript of the audiotape. Read all about it here at the Notebook.
It’s the latest fiasco behind the difficulty Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has had in convincing school communities that her “turnaround” process for schools is meant to really benefit them. Protests over turnaround – an unproven effort promoted by the U.S. Dept. of Ed – have erupted at West, King, Olney, and Audenried High Schools since the fall.
For example, as a brand new school, Audenried’s students had yet to take the PSSA exams which were supposed to be used to determine which schools were designated for turnaround. The school has protested its designation and has complained that the charter operator, Universal, has had a troubling record as an EMO provider in the District. SRC Chair Bob Archie formerly sat on Universal's board of directors.
West Philadelphia High School will be on its fourth principal in one year and the second dramatic teacher turnover thanks to the turnaround process which requires a new principal and the replacement of 50% of the teaching staff. City Council member Jannie Blackwell has indicated her close involvement in backdoor decisionmaking about West.
Although I admire what State Rep. Evans has done for the Oak Lane neighborhood and a broad visioning of that neighborhood which includes the arts and education, this interview shows he clearly crossed a line in employing brazen tactics to force out a competitor and upend an already fragile process about a minimal attempt at local control.
But hey, it’s all about the kids right?