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July 25, 2014, 12:43 am

School closure study draws lawsuit

The local branch of the NAACP joined with influential grassroots education organization Parents United for Public Education in filing a complaint against the William Penn Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group for what the complainants’ claim was a covert deal to push the School District of Philadelphia closer to privatization.

The core issue is the multimillion-dollar funding of the BCG’s analysis of the school district operations and its subsequent recommendations, which include the closure of dozens of schools and a major overhaul of the district’s administration.

Parents United and the NAACP jointly claim that the William Penn Foundation funded the analysis, and therefore should be registered as a lobbying firm with the city’s Board of Ethics.

NAACP Philadelphia Chapter President Jerry Mondesire and members from Parents United announced the filing of the complaint a few feet away from the Board of Ethics offices.

“When private money can trump democracy, can trump public debate, can trump bringing people around a constructive and positive table, all we have is conflict, which is where the discussion has been,” said Parents United member Gerald White, who added that parents were largely kept in the dark about the relationship between the school district, the William Penn Foundation and the BCG. “Many people have attempted to make this discussion about public schools or charter schools, but this about our children, their future and the future of our city - it’s certainly about our parents being able to participate.

“So we filed the complaint, hoping the Ethics Board will have a full hearing to look into whether or not the William Penn Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group violated the city’s lobbying law,” White continued. “The importance of that is transparency. If they filed as lobbyists, they would have to report not only what they spent, but the facts and information on a regular basis that would then give the public an opportunity to comment.”

For his part, Mondesire said the local branch of the NAACP has long supported public education, and wouldn’t stand idly by as decisions are made that affect the quality of education for Philadelphia public school students, the overwhelming majority of which are African-American.

“We have consistently supported public education, and that is the reason why we joined the complaint, because we believe that public schools in this city, right now, are threatened,” Mondesire said. “In less than ten days, some 50 to 60 schools will be announced to be closed, and we don’t know what the real agenda was, how these schools came to be on this target list, and whose interests are best being served.

“We think the big money that was raised by the William Penn Foundation and spent by the Boston Consulting Group were answerable to a different agenda,” Mondesire continued. “Different from that of the NAACP’s, from Parents United and different from [that of] parents in general from all across this city. We want total transparency.”

Newly hired district Superintendent William Hite Jr. said the permanent school closure list will be released next week. Further acerbating the situation is the district’s recent decision to do away with the three-month wait period between when a school is announced for closure and when the closure process actually begins. The district now has the ability to announce a school is closing and immediately proceed to shut it down.

The William Penn Foundation released a statement that dismissed the lawsuit, and noted that the foundation has been a positive entity in public education for several generations.

“We are aware of their complaint, and our attorneys are confident that it is without merit,” read the statement from the foundation. “The William Penn Foundation has been a force for public integrity and civic good in the Greater Philadelphia region for nearly 70 years, and we will continue that tradition through our efforts to improve children’s futures, protect the environment, and nurture creativity and rich cultural expression.”

Calls and e-mails to the Boston Consulting Group weren’t returned as of Tribune press time.

The latest version of the controversial report, “Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools: Key Findings and Recommendations,” included many provocative suggestions, with the closure of dozens of schools perhaps the most contentious.

“We estimate that SDP could close 40–50 schools in the near-term. This would increase its facilities utilization from 72 percent to 90 percent or greater and would save $32 million to $40 million a year in operating costs, depending on the size and types of facilities closed. In addition, these analyses are based on today's utilization level,” read a portion of the report. “Over the next five years, the number of seats in free-standing, lottery-based charter schools and cyber charters is anticipated to increase by roughly 21,000. If students switch from District-operated to charter schools at rates similar to the past, SDP's enrollment is likely to drop by another 15,000 students. To maintain utilization at 85 percent would necessitate the closure of an additional 15 to 20 schools over the next five years.”

School District of Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard released a statement that confirmed and explained the nature of the district’s relationship with the foundation and with BCG.

“The School District of Philadelphia retained the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), following a competitive bid process, to conduct detailed analyzes and develop recommendations to stabilize the District’s finances and ensure that all students have better access to safe, high-quality educational options that prepare them for college and careers,” read the school district’s statement, in part. “The District was the only entity involved in defining the scope of work done under the contract, and the District is and will continue to be the only entity that decides which recommendations and best practices identified by BCG will be implemented in our schools.

“The School District is very grateful for the support that the William Penn Foundation has provided to the children of Philadelphia and public education overall,” the statement continued. “We look forward to continue working with the William Penn Foundation and other philanthropic organizations as we move forward in creating a safe and high-achieving school system for all students.”

 

Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at (215) 893-5745 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .