Phila. Mayor Nutter promises probe into King charter mess

Mayor Nutter promised Monday that his chief integrity officer will conduct a “series of fact-finding interviews” into the events surrounding the ill-fated charter for Martin Luther King High School.

While Nutter acknowledged that the King saga still includes many “outstanding, unanswered questions,” he also said he didn’t want King’s issues to overshadow what he called the District’s most pressing problem: its projected $629 million deficit, and the ongoing budget discussions in Harrisburg.

“This is an important issue,” said Nutter of the controversy around the King charter. “We need to deal with it, put closure to it, and hopefully move forward and not have it interfere with the larger issues that are very, very pressing with regards to the District.”

Here’s a summary of what’s at issue:

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The School Reform Commission voted last month voted to give Mosaica Education of Atlanta  a five-year charter deal to manage King that could be worth up to $60 million. One day later, following a private, closed-door meeting among Mosaica’s John Porter, School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie, state Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila), and Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery, Mosaica withdrew from the deal.

That action left the door open for the second competitor for the charter organization, the nonprofit Foundations, Inc., which has ties to both Archie and Evans, and has been involved in running the school for eight years.

In the wake of controversy over the reasons for Mosaica’s about-face, Foundations also withdrew from consideration for King’s charter. It cited “unrelenting hostility” from a “vocal minority.” As a result, the District will operate the school for a year.

King is a 1,000-student neighborhood high school in East Germantown, which many families in Evans’ district attend.

Archie, an attorney, has consistently recused himself from public votes on any King-related matters, because his firm has represented Foundations. A volunteer advisory group at the school has called for an investigation into his actions regarding King.

Nutter said he spoke to Archie and also sent him a letter Monday saying he was “concerned about the many unanswered questions surrounding the withdrawal” of Mosaica after the SRC had voted.

Nutter said he has asked the city’s Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman to conduct the interviews with everyone involved with King’s charter discussions, and that he hoped to share results “as soon as possible.” Nutter wants Markman to interview members of Ackerman’s top staff, members of the SRC, and officials from Foundations and Mosaica.

The SRC vote for Mosaica ratified the choice of the community panel, called the School Advisory Council, which had reviewed both providers’ plans to turn around the school. 

Nutter said he asked Archie about his motivation for calling the undisclosed meeting, which was held at District headquarters on March 16 right after the SRC voted to give the charter to Mosaica.

But Nutter said he did not ask Archie for details of what went on.

“We didn’t have a lot of discussion about that,” Nutter said. “Many of you have already talked with him, and he has said what he has said about that, and certainly didn’t say anything more in our conversation.”

Nutter also said he has not spoken to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who has said that her top aide, Deputy Superintendent Nunery, was “shocked” by what he heard in Archie’s meeting.

“I don’t know what the individual may or may not have found shocking,” Nutter said. “I wasn’t in the meeting, so I don’t know exactly what happened.” Ackerman has also said she still knows no details of what happened.

The press conference marked Nutter’s first public statement about King’s charter. He was the first city or District official to take questions publicly about King since Ackerman spoke about the issue to NewsWorks and the Notebook over one month ago.

Archie and Evans have both agreed to cooperate with the investigation, the mayor said.

“It’s a relatively small number of people involved,” Nutter said. “And probably really more of a function of trying to schedule their time. All are very, very busy, and focused on a very, very pressing issue, which is the budget challenge that the School District is facing.”

Archie has said he used the closed door meeting to try to help Mosaica’s Porter and Rep. Evans work together, given that Foundations would be forced to end its long association with King..

“I … suggested that since you tell me you have the support of the community, Mr. Evans, I think you, Mr. Porter, need that support of that community. You can’t do it on an island,” Archie told the Inquirer. Archie has not responded to multiple interview requests from NewsWorks and the Notebook.

Evans has said he used the meeting to advocate for his own plans, which include Foundations. Porter has not commented on the details or the meeting, nor confirmed Evans and Archie’s accounts, although he was quoted by Ackerman as being “shocked” at what went on. Nunery has not commented.

Nutter said his investigator would get into the detailed questions of “who said what to whom,” and that the inquiry would help provide closure to students and community members at King.

But he reiterated several times that he’s primarily concerned with the budget right now.

“Getting over this particular budget hurdle could not be more paramount, it’s the primary focus of our administration,” Nutter said. “That’s where we’re going to dedicate our time and our effort.”

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