Can $35 million buy the Philadelphia School District?

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    Is the Philadelphia School District for sale?

    That seems to be the central question facing taxpayers in the wake of a $35 million offer from the non-profit Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP).

    Most of the money—$25 million—would go to fund some of the 39 new charter school applications that the School District says it can’t afford to approve. Another $10 million would go to District schools.

    If the School District takes the money, PSP hopes it will help to create 15,000 more charter school seats for city students. There’s a problem, though. The money isn’t nearly enough. In fact, the School District estimates it would take around $500 million to put 15,000 more students into charter schools.

    I talked to PSP Executive Director Mark Gleason in an interview on 900 am WURD, and asked him if the PSP offer for new charter schools was sufficient.

    “It’s not enough forever,” Gleason told me, “but by our estimation, it would be enough to cover the cost of approving some, not all of the charter applications on a staggered basis over the next three years. At the end of the day we have no influence over which charters get approved and which get rejected, but our $35 million is based on an estimate and would have to be adjusted based on whatever actually got approved.”

    And that’s where it gets hairy. Because the Philadelphia School Partnership might not directly control which charters get approved, but the organization does wield influence, and it uses money to do so.

    According to the Form 990 the Philadelphia School Partnership filed with the IRS, the organization gave five grants totaling $1,011,384 to the School District of Philadelphia in 2013, including $91,744 to “assist the district in search for candidates to fill four senior positions within its central leadership team.”

    Gleason said the School District applied for the grants, including the one for an executive search. And while PSP does not choose the District’s executives, Gleason said, PSP exercises oversight concerning its grants. Thst much is confrimed in this section form PSP tax documents.

    “Applicants selected for investment will enter into an agreement with PSP that sets forth goals and performance benchmarks tied to grant disbursement. PSP will work closely with applicants to provide support and address challenges to ensure that goals and benchmarks are met. In some cases, PSP may also seek a seat on the applicant’s board of directors.”

    Gleason told me in the interview that PSP could not go so far as to gain a seat on the School District’s Board of Directors. But he also told me that the $35 million PSP is currently offering to the School District is coming from private donors who won’t be revealed unless and until the District accepts the money.

    Secret money from unidentified donors smacks of ethical problems, but it’s a shrewd investment. For just $35 million, these unidentified donors could gain a foothold in the $2.6 billion enterprise that is the Philadelphia School District.

    And while those secret donors won’t be able to directly seek a seat on the School Reform Commission, they could provide financial support to the winner of the mayor’s race, and thus have the mayor’s ear as he or she makes SRC selections.

    Given that reality, I asked Gleason if the Philadelphia School Partnership was seeking to buy influence.

    He said no.

    “Our goal in putting the offer out there was to buy some time for the District so as to try to make it cost neutral so it could make these decisions on charter schools based purely on the merits, whether they’re quality applications or not quality applications for a period of three years,” Gleason said.

    But what happens after the three years? What does PSP hope to see? I asked Gleason if the organization’s end goal was to create a District comprised of charter schools. Gleason said PSP simply wants more good schools, whether or not they are charters.

    That’s a laudable goal, and I hope it’s true, but the numbers tell a different story.

    PSP’s tax forms say it distributed $10,245,186 in grants in 2013. Over 90 percent of it—more than $9.2 million—went to charter schools.

    But PSP didn’t stop there. They wielded political influence as well. In 2013, the organization spent $239,601 on lobbying activity. Over $186,500 was spent on direct contact with legislators, their staffs, government officials or a legislative body.

    Is it so farfetched that such an organization would seek to gain direct access to the schools, and to the politicians that control them?

    I don’t think it’s farfetched at all, and that’s why I believe the Philadelphia School District can’t accept this money.

    If PSP wants the taxpayers to seriously consider its offer, then everything should be above board. We should know the name of every donor in advance, and we should be able to cross check those names against political donors, corporate boards, political action committees and the like.

    We can’t have secrets when it comes to the future of our children, because our children have far too much at stake.

    Listen to Solomon Jones 7-10 am Monday through Friday on 900 am WURD

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