King parent: Schools chair browbeat us over charter deal

Members of a key parent committee at Martin Luther King High say they are pleased to see Foundations Inc. withdraw from contention for a charter to run the school.

But they still want to know the whole story about the role played by School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie in the unfolding drama at King.

King’s School Advisory Council (SAC) has called for a full investigation into Archie’s role, citing three recent encounters that have left the group questioning the SRC chairman’s impartiality when it comes to Foundations, a New Jersey nonprofit to which Archie has ties.

Conchevia Washington, chairwoman of the King SAC, said Archie actively encouraged her group to support Foundations, despite his publicly declared conflict of interest in the matter, and despite his fellow commissioners’ unanimous support of another company. This pressure came both in a chance encounter with Washington and in a private meeting school commissioners held with the volunteer council.

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Archie recently acknowledged that he was present in a closed-door March 16 meeting that helped Foundations get back in the running for the charter school contract, after it lost out to a rival, Mosaica Education, in a lengthy public process.

Archie, an attorney and appointee of Mayor Michael Nutter, has recused himself publicly from Foundations-related votes because his firm, Duane Morris, has represented the organization.

Archie has confirmed he took part in a private meeting with a Mosaica executive just hours after an SRC vote granting King’s charter to Mosaica. He said his goal was to facilitate a discussion between Mosaica and his longtime friend state Rep. Dwight Evans. Evans, whose 203rd House district includes many households that send students to King, very much wanted Foundations to stay involved at King, a 1,081-student school in Germantown.

Foundations, which also has close ties to Evans, has managed King under contract with the Philadelphia School District since 2003. The new deal to run King as an independent, but publicly funded, charter school is worth an estimated $60 million over five years.

Washington and her fellow SAC member Wanda Lassiter said that in an emotionally charged April 13 meeting between their volunteer panel and the SRC, Archie used his time to aggressively probe the SAC’s voting procedures. Washington and Lassiter saw his questions as an attempt to find a “loophole” that would justify Foundations’ bid. The SAC members also said that in the same meeting, Archie responded to a clear invitation to explain his role with “25 seconds of silence.”

Washington also said that in a chance encounter April 12 on a Center City street, Archie personally urged her to “forget Mosaica” and accept Foundations.

“He said, ‘I talked to Dwight last night, and I said, we’ve got to make this work. We’ve got to come to some resolution that Foundations is getting what they want, that the SAC is getting what they want, that everyone comes together,’ ” Washington said of the conversation, which took place the day before the King SAC met with Archie and the rest of the school commission.

Archie has declined repeated requests from NewsWorks and the Notebook to discuss details of the discussions on March 16, April 12, and April 13.

Tearful exchange

As the district-sanctioned volunteer group charged with overseeing King’s transformation into a charter school, the King SAC has been at the center of the debate over Foundations’ role at the school since the district’s Renaissance process began in January.

The SAC’s membership is somewhat fluid, depending on who chooses to come to its regular meetings. It includes parents, neighbors, a student, and the school nurse. Washington said the SAC currently includes 11 active members.

The SAC’s 8-1 vote recommending Mosaica, an Atlanta-based, for-profit company, over Foundations came after public meetings featuring extensive input from students and parents. The recommendation was endorsed by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and led directly to the SRC’s March 16 vote granting Mosaica the right to negotiate the King charter under the district’s Renaissance Schools initiative.

Mosaica withdrew just a day after that vote, and less than 24 hours after the closed-door meeting at district headquarters between Archie, Evans, Mosaica’s John Q. Porter, and an unnamed district staffer.

Following Mosaica’s surprise withdrawal, the SAC deliberated its options. It decided to press the district to retain control of the school for a year, rather than turn the school over completely to Foundations in September. With the help of Ackerman, the SAC arranged to meet with the full SRC.

On April 13, two King SAC members, representing the entire group, sat down with Archie, the other three commissioners, and Ackerman, with a third SAC member joining part of the meeting by conference call.

Ackerman and the four commissioners did not respond to detailed requests for comment on the meeting.

But according to the two SAC members, Archie aggressively probed their group’s history in what seemed to them an attempt to find a procedural justification for a role for Foundations.

Archie “was trying to find a flaw in the system,” said Washington. “He was trying to find a loophole that was not there.”

“He kept trying to argue the point that the SAC chose Foundations as their second choice,” recalled Lassiter. “The man just kept repeating himself. We got tired of arguing about it, and [Commissioner Johnny Irizarry] drove the conversation away from it, because it wasn’t going to get settled.”

Under the district’s rules, a second choice in a Renaissance charter process could qualify for the charter if the first choice for some reason did not work out.

The women wanted to use the meeting to talk about their panel’s preference to delay the charter transformation for a year, but Archie, they said, pressed hard about their group’s procedural history, such as its 8-1 pro-Mosaica vote.

“He kept saying it was 7-2, and I said, ‘Great that you heard that, but where is that documented?’ ” Washington said.

Archie had other procedural questions too, the SAC members said.

“He also wanted to make sure that we had at least 51 percent parental participation in the vote,” a district requirement, Washington recalled. “And we exceeded that – we had 55 percent.”

They said Archie also raised questions about an audience survey from a public meeting at King in which he said Foundations outpolled Mosaica by 118-105.

“We told him we had never heard of such a score,” said Lassiter, who said the King SAC had in fact conducted a survey, but did not take controlled steps to ensure its accuracy.

Washington and Lassiter said that the other commissioners listened carefully and took notes as they asked about conditions in the school, the SAC’s impression of Evans’ neighborhood education network, and the possible effects of deferring the charter transition for a year.

By contrast, Archie struck them as aggressive, the King SAC members said, and at one point things got heated.

“We both sat at that table and cried,” said Lassiter. “This is how bad it had gotten. And it was because he was arguing with us.”

But they also said Archie went silent after Washington told him she believed that “someone else” had been in the room with Evans and Mosaica’s Porter on the evening of March 16, the day before the company abruptly withdrew. Archie had in fact been in the room, but said nothing in response to Washington.

“Mr. Archie got really quiet,” said Lassiter. “Nobody said anything, and it was pretty much silence for 20, 25 seconds.”

“You could have heard two pins drop,” said Washington.

She said she did not, however, ask Archie directly whether he or anyone else had been in the room with Evans and Porter.

Chance encounter, strong message

Washington said her other encounter with Archie left her with the strong impression that he was actively supporting Foundations’ bid, despite his public recusals over his conflict of interest.

Washington, who works for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Archie made a detailed pitch for Foundations when the two met by chance in front of her Center City office on April 12, the day before the King SAC’s scheduled meeting with the SRC.

“He said, ‘You know, look, I know that you guys don’t want Foundations, but you don’t have a choice,’ ” said Washington, mother of a King sophomore. “This was definitely the hard sell. It sounded like a politician’s stump speech.”

Washington said she reminded Archie that Mosaica’s position at the time was that it would come back to King if it had the full support of the community.

But Archie dismissed the possibility, Washington said.

“He said, ‘Forget Mosaica, that’s a done deal.’ “

Washington said that Archie was congenial, but persistent.

‘”He clearly said, ‘Look, I’ve got a plan. You take what you liked from the Mosaica proposal, and add it into the Foundations proposal, we’ll write it in there,’ ” Washington recalled.

Washington said Archie offered to be personally accountable, giving her access to his chief of staff and arranging for quarterly reports to come directly to him.

“He said, ‘If they’re not working for you, and they’re not doing the things they promised to do, you come to me, and we’ll fire them,’ ” Washington said.

She declined the offer and they parted cordially, she said. Archie made no mention of this proposal in front of his fellow commissioners at the meeting the next day, Washington said.

Students face uncertain future

Now that Foundations has announced it will walk away from King, district officials say the school will still be transformed into a charter, but not until the 2012-13 school year. The district has promised to provide extra resources and work closely with the King SAC throughout the coming year.

Washington, elected to her position as chairwoman by her fellow King SAC members, said that navigating the recent string of dramatic developments has been exhausting.

“I’m shopping for a deserted island,” she joked.

She’s pleased Foundations is out of the picture, but she’s disappointed that the students have seen what started as an orderly, open public process descend into controversy. She hopes that Archie’s role in the turn of events is the subject of a full investigation.

King’s students, she said, deserved a smooth transition, not an acrimonious controversy.

“Our kids went above and beyond. They took the initiative to meet independently with Mosaica, with Foundations,” Washington said. “They were excited to have the opportunity to have their voices heard. I’m still emotional about this.”

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