With controversy swirling around the role played by State Rep. Dwight Evans in the selection of a new charter operator for Martin Luther King High, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman says the school’s fate is now in the hands of the School Reform Commission.
“It will be up to the SRC,” said Ackerman in an interview Wednesday night. The board will have to decide when it meets next month whether to hand King over to the New Jersey-based nonprofit on whose behalf Evans intervened last week, Foundations Inc.
District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser said the vote is tentatively scheduled for April 27. She said that while procedural restrictions mean the SRC can’t vote to replace Foundations with another charter provider, it can choose not to vote at all, leaving King as a district-run school for at least another year.
Votes tossed aside
Last week, acting on Ackerman’s recommendation, the SRC voted to grant Mosaica Education the right to run King as a charter next year. Based on the District’s standard per-pupil reimbursement to charter schools, the King contract would be worth an estimated $12 million annually. Evans, however, wanted to see the job go to his longtime partner in education projects, the nonprofit Foundations Inc., which has managed King on behalf of the district since 2003, and whose executives have given Evans thousands in campaign donations over the years.
In public testimony leading up to the SRC vote, Evans told the commissioners that a change in management at King would threaten his ongoing attempts to develop a network of education and job training programs in Northwest Philadelphia. The SRC approved Mosaica anyway, and the head of the company’s turnaround division, John Porter, said that evening that he couldn’t wait to get started. But the next day Mosaica made a surprise announcement: It was withdrawing from the King deal.
It’s the lie that gets you
That day, Evans told a NewsWorks/Public School Notebook reporter that he’d fought “like a bulldog on a bone” to clear the way for Foundations, even after the SRC’s vote. Porter offered some confirmation of that account, telling the Notebook that he’d been personally contacted by Evans after the SRC’s vote. Porter said he’d decided to withdraw in part because he recognized the value of Evans’ networks, and in part because “we did not believe that without having total support we could be effective.”
Despite these published reports, days later, Evans told the Philadelphia Daily News that he had “nothing to do with Mosaica backing out.” After reviewing the transcript of the NewsWorks/Notebook interview with Evans, the Daily News followed with a scathing headline: “Evans … Lied About Role in School Operator Selection.” The paper added an editorial that read, “The public process that should have been a victory not just for the schools, but the city, got kicked to the curb.”
Valerie Johnson, a member of the volunteer School Advisory Council (SAC) that recommended Mosaica over Foundations by an 8-1 vote, told the paper, “We did feel like it was kind of arrogant of him …. He did not use his power wisely.”
Loosing a choice
Ackerman, who met Tuesday with Evans, SRC Chairman Robert Archie, and three members of King’s SAC, said it was “tragic” that the SAC had lost its first choice following Evans’ last-minute intervention. King’s SAC spent weeks reviewing provider proposals, visiting schools and taking part in public meetings about the Renaissance process, the District’s signature effort to turn around struggling schools by placing them under new management.
“Some of them, they certainly felt it was an injustice, and I felt for them. I really did,” said Ackerman, who said she’d talked to Evans about his concerns before the SRC’s vote, but decided to stick with her own plan to endorse Mosaica, based on the recommendation of King’s SAC.
“I just know that I stuck by my recommendation through to the end,” Ackerman said. “I did talk to Rep. Evans before [the SRC’s vote], and he did express his concern, but I stuck with the recommendation.”
Keeping the SAC involved
Ackerman said she still doesn’t know exactly what transpired between the time the SRC voted to approve Mosaica, and the company’s decision the next day to turn down the job. After the vote, Ackerman said she didn’t hear anything from any SRC members, but when asked if she’d heard from Mosaica or anyone else before the company withdrew, she said only, “I knew there was a problem, I don’t know all of the details …. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.”
She said she called Porter several times after Mosaica announced its withdrawal to try to convince him to reconsider, but that the company was firm in its desire to focus on the one other school it was awarded in the Renaissance process, Birney Elementary.
“I don’t know that I know everything, and for me, at this point, it’s a moot point, because I’ve talked to [Porter], and they’ve made a decision, and they’re going to just go with Birney, and so what I’m trying to do is to get everybody to move forward,” said Ackerman.
Ackerman said she hopes King’s SAC remains involved in the process and helps hold King’s next administration accountable. She said she’ll have no objection if Foundations wins the SRC’s approval at the April vote, but nor will she stop the King SAC from continuing to ask questions about Evans, Foundations, or their plans for King.
“If they want to talk to the SRC members, they can do that,” said Ackerman. “What I’m most concerned about now is that they’re listened to, and that they get what they want for their children in that school, and they become an integral part of the plans to develop academic programs, and that they monitor them.”
This story is the product of a news gathering partnership between NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.