City looking into former superintendent’s claim she was ‘advised’ to change her charter decision
Former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is no longer the central figure charged with educating the more than 155,000 students in the district, but her influence continues to run far and wide in the city.
Almost a month after she and the School Reform Commission agreed on her contract buyout, Ackerman has shifted attention to another unseemly School District situation — the Martin Luther King charter fiasco.
Specifically, Ackerman told The Notebook.org, a blog that covers the Philadelphia public schools, that Mayor Michael Nutter already has the results of an investigation into the controversy. It was back in April that Nutter announced an investigation into the situation headed by Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman.
“I think it’s tragic and unconscionable, that the story hasn’t been told yet,” Ackerman told the Notebook earlier this week.
According to the office of the mayor, that day is coming within the next two weeks, maybe less. Until that time, though, Ackerman and others will have to wait a little bit longer.
“The report from the chief integrity officer to the mayor will be released shortly,” mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said. “It would be premature to talk about anything particular to that whole issue at this point.”
With the resignation on Monday of School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie, Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg says that the public is due an answer now.
“It is my understanding that the Markman report is in [the mayor’s] hands, and I think it should be released,” said the president of the watchdog organization. “Not releasing it sends a bad message on top of the other bad messages that have already been sent. The decision of who is going to be the operator of Martin Luther King High School has been closely watched since Easter. It would clear up at least one of the clouds hanging over the school district if the mayor released the report.”
Archie’s resignation, Stalberg says, just raises more questions begging to be answered.
“Now that Archie has resigned, the public has the right to know whether or not the findings of the report had anything to do with his resignation.”
At the core of the controversy was the battle between Foundations, Inc., an organization with which state Rep. Dwight Evans has deep ties, and Mosaica Education out of Atlanta. It was reported last April that Evans — in a closed-door meeting, allegedly convinced Mosaica to back out of the five-year, $12 million contract it had been awarded so that Foundations could have it.
While she gives no specifics, Ackerman painted a picture of arm-twisting and political backroom deals being made that superseded the wants, needs and desires of the parents and children of Martin Luther King High.
Of that situation, Ackerman told The Notebook that she felt pressured on more than one occasion to endorse Foundations, Inc. over Mosaica. She added that she “was told by someone that if I didn’t get my mind right about this Foundations situation, that something would be leaked about my finances.”
Not long after she was allegedly given this directive, Fox29 News aired a report that showed she owed more $20,000 in back taxes. Ackerman’s tax attorney works at Duane Morris LLP. Archie is also a partner at Duane Morris, and a close associate of Evans.
The SRC voted to award Mosaica — which had been the choice of an advisory panel of King parents and community leaders — the contract on March 16. Scant hours later, Archie, who said he was acting in his official capacity, called a meeting of all parties despite his obvious conflict of interest — Duane Morris had represented Foundations before.
Shortly after Archie’s role became public, Foundations withdrew its bid for the contract. A long-suffering school that has struggled academically, King today is run by the school district as a Promise Academy.
At the time the decision was made, Ackerman appeared neutral on the issue. Now it appears that her support was for Mosaica all along, and she wants the story told.
“I think the public needs to know exactly what happened so that this won’t happen again,” Ackerman said.
When Nutter launched the investigation into the King controversy, he spoke in urgent terms of getting to the bottom of the situation. However, in the days, weeks and now months that have passed — that sense of urgency has waned.
Meanwhile, the SRC is still shrouded in mystery. When the SRC bought out Ackerman’s contract at $905,000, $405,000 came from anonymous donors. The privacy of those anonymous donors stirred a furor in the city that eventually the public donors reneged on the money, leaving the school district — and taxpayers — to foot the bill.
Two members of the embattled School Reform Commission are leaving their posts. Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. resigned Monday and Johnny Irizarry was expected to follow suit.
“I am resigning as chairman and as a member of the School Reform Commission, a very distinguished and hard working body of volunteers, effective immediately,” Archie, who is also a Tribune board member, said in a statement.
Irizarry confirmed that he would be stepping down but declined to comment before an announcement by Mayor Michael Nutter.
Archie, along with state Rep. Dwight Evans, is the subject of an investigation by the city’s integrity office as Mayor Michael Nutter seeks to find out exactly what happened during the Philadelphia School District’s attempt to turn Martin Luther King High School into a charter school.
Nutter, who appointed both men in March 2009, ordered the investigation into Archie in April. Though he promised a report “as soon as possible,” the city has not yet released its findings.
He was expected to make a public statement Monday afternoon.
The Avenue of the Arts Inc. is gearing up for a project that would enhance the North Broad Street corridor.
The Building on North Broad Street Initiative calls for a bold lighting design, green spaces and landscaping along the corridor that spans from north of City Hall to Broad and Glenwood.
Under the $13 million project, 55-square foot high lights would be installed from Broad and Spring Garden Streets to Broad and Glenwood Avenue. Streetscape plantings would span from City Hall to Broad and Glenwood.
AAI Executive Director Karen A. Lewis says this is the ideal time to enhance the North Broad corridor.
“Things are aligned now. When I first started and I talked about North Broad Street people would look at me strangely. Now when I say North Broad Street — it’s like, oh wow,” Lewis said, noting more developers are taking more interest in the corridor.
“It’s just interesting to see that change in reaction because there’s so much happening. It’s just the timing is right. There’s just a lot of interest, activity and development and that’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted people to know and appreciate the potential for North Broad Street.”
The project will be highlighted during a Promenade of Lights Ceremony held September 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple School of Law, 1719 North Broad Street.
“It is to show that we have reached a milestone in this project and we wanted the community and others to celebrate this milestone with us,” Lewis says of the ceremony.
The Building on North Street Initiative is supported by local, private, state and federal investment. Mayor Michael Nutter administration contributed $4.8 million in capital funds to the project.
AAI recently received $3.9 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funding for the project. State Sen. Shirley Kitchen, state Sen. Vincent Hughes and state Rep. Dwight Evans were instrumental in securing the additional funding.
Sen. Kitchen says the project will really give the North Broad corridor a lift for both neighborhood residents and businesses.
“Everything just can’t continue to keep going on South Broad. We got to build up North Broad too. It absolutely needs it. You can see the drop off as you travel northward from Center City,” Kitchen said.
“It really needs to be built up so that businesses can be attracted to locate there. We’re trying to build it up because businesses can’t thrive and neighborhoods can’t grow if there isn’t an incentive created and people don’t feel like anybody cares.”
AAI has been working on the Building on North Broad Street Initiative since 2007. Organization officials have been meeting with city departments, PennDOT, SEPTA and community stakeholders.
The project, designed by architect Bohlin Cynwinski Jackson, is slated to be up for bid by the end of year. The streetlights and streetscape plantings are scheduled for completion by 2013.
For the last six decades, Barbara Decoursey, 79, has never missed voting in an election, especially a presidential election.
She has been voting faithfully ever since the days of Harry S. Truman, and she has seen to it that all of her children, grand- and great-grandchildren voted as well.
So committed has she been to the process that she has worked her way up the ladder to become an election judge for the city’s Board of Elections.
But this year, Decoursey got a scare that even she, an elections official, might not be able to perform her cherished ritual this time around. A new state voting law has nearly derailed her ability to vote by requiring credentials like a birth certificate that she doesn’t have.
And she’s not the only one. 96-year-old Louise Furness, like other seniors across the state, face a similar dilemma.
The cause of all their concerns is their difficulty in obtaining the required birth documentation to accommodate the new voter identification bill.
The problem is that would-be voters can’t get the photo identification without the birth certificate.
Decoursey is so well connected that on the face of it she would appear to be one of the last people to have a problem getting a birth certificate, even though she, like many of her generation, was born at home in the South at a time when the births of Black people weren’t tracked as closely as others.
“Back then, they didn’t have birth certificates,” said Furness.
Until higher political officials intervened, Decoursey, who had tried for years without success to obtain a birth certificate, thought she would not have a chance to once again vote for a Black president.
Decoursey worries that if she has had such difficulty what must it be like for other Black seniors.
Furness is one of those who still have a problem.
As in the case of Decoursey, her problem has been proving that she was ever born.
Because such a law reminds some of efforts to disqualify Barack Obama over his birth certificate, as well as other reasons, some critics claim it is a deliberate effort to make it more difficult for the elderly to vote in the Nov. 6 general election.
But supporters of the legislation like Gov. Tom Corbett contend the law is merely an effort to prevent voter fraud.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed the Voter ID Bill in March. When the bill becomes law in time for November election, all voters will be required to present photo identification at the polls. Those who do not produce identification will be allowed to cast provisional ballots and will be required to send in an identification document within six days after Election Day.
The new rule is expected to present difficulties for other elderly citizens besides Decoursey and Furness, who might not have photo IDs because they do not drive. A second problem was difficulty getting to a Department of Motor Vehicles office to get the necessary documents. Some may not even be aware of the new rule.
But the difficulty in obtaining birth certificates seems to be the biggest deterrent facing would-be voters who are seniors.
For both Decoursey and Furness, born of midwives down in North Carolina, birth certificates didn’t exist.
Even councilwoman Marian Tasco said she ran into a similar problem when she tried to obtain a driver’s license in 1968 after moving to Philadelphia.
At her recent Democratic fundraising brunch in North Philadelphia, Tasco said obtaining a birth certificate was a difficult ordeal.
“I went through it in 1968. I had to get a license...and they wrote back that there was no record of my birth.”
She said she had to go through a lengthy process of establishing her birth to obtain one.
“For many of us, birth certificates are difficult to come by,” she said. At a presentation of the Voter ID Law by the City Commissioner’s Office Tuesday, Tasco said the problem is especially acute for Black seniors, the backbone of Black voting power.
“For our elderly from places like Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, a lot were born at home,” she said.
Election official Donna Powell complained, “The rules seem to be changing day by day. It’s a big mess designed to deter voters from coming out to vote for Obama.”
Similar identification legislation has been introduced throughout the country, but Pennsylvania’s bill is said to be one of the strictest.
Proponents of such laws, claim that they support such legislation in order to prevent voter fraud. But at the presentation of a Voter I.D. bill educational meeting, state Rep. Cherelle Parker told an audience in West Oak Lane, “We can’t allow people to keep us away from the polls.”
She said though the bill has already been passed, opponents like herself were seeking to overturn the bill through lawsuits, legislative repeal and educating the public.
According to Parker, the NAACP and the ACLU have both filed lawsuits attempting to overturn the statute.
While help from state Rep. Dwight Evan’s office eventually paid off for Decoursey,
Furness was still in limbo about being able to obtain a birth certificate from her home state of North Carolina.
For many of her years voting, Furness had used a voter registration card. But she said her pocketbook, with the card in it, was stolen recently.
“I’ve been voting ever since I got a voting card,” she said, who said she is not sure how long ago that was. “At my age, I don’t remember everything. All I know is when I was born, there was no birth certificate.”
Both women are grandmothers who have suffered discrimination and have taught their children the sanctity of the ballot.
As Furness put it, “I have been voting in every election, now I don’t know which way to go.”
Political and community leaders turned out to mark the unveiling of the renovated Brown’s ShopRite of Cheltenham.
The newly renovated 75,000-square foot store was unveiled Wednesday morning, and features expanded offerings such as an International Market, and a new seafood department.
“We went to great lengths to offer options to help people live a healthier life,” said Jeff Brown, president and CEO, Brown’s SuperStores, Inc. “Between produce, seafood and fish, poultry and meat, dairy and deli, we have 1,000 fresh items in this store that celebrate the heritage of our customers.”
The $12 million renovation project was financed by a combination of $5.5 million in state money and $6.5 million in private funding. The store, located at 2385 Cheltenham Avenue, employs 325 people.
The project is a part of first lady Michelle Obama’s national effort to increase healthy food access to millions of underserved people across the nation.
In July, Obama joined the Partnership for a Healthier America in announcing commitments from Brown’s Super Stores, SUPERVALU, Walgreens, Walmart, California FreshWorks Fund, Calhoun’s Grocer, and Klein’s Family Markets to expand and open more than 1,500 stores over the next five years to serve approximately nine million consumers.
“Jeff is showing us that we can make stores in areas that really weren’t profitable, profitable for small businesses — creating great jobs, serving healthier food for the community — and we want to do this all around the country,” said Larry Soler, president and CEO, the Partnership For a Healthier America.
The White House has recognized Brown’s Super Stores for its efforts in serving urban communities who lack affordable, healthy food.
“The first lady has really laid out a vision for this nation — and it’s a vision that calls upon all of us to step back and think about how are we impacting the health and well-being of our nation’s children — and what changes can we make to help improve their health,” said Sam Kass, White House senior policy advisor.
“Make no mistake, the future of our country is really at risk. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) predicts that one in three children born today will have diabetes in their lifetime. When you step back and understand the consequences of this — they’re devastating.”
A plaque bearing the name and likeness of state Rep. Dwight Evans was unveiled during the celebratory event. Evans was hailed for his work in developing the Fresh Food Financing Initiative. The grant and loan program which encourages supermarket development in underserved neighborhoods is regarded as a national model.
The FFFI was launched when Brown’s SuperStores opened a ShopRite store on Island Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia.
“I want to be very clear. This is not about me, this is not about the Browns and this is not about elected officials. It’s about the customers. It’s about the taxpayers. It’s about the people,” said Evans.
“The Browns and the elected officials are no more than conduits to what people deserve — and you deserve the best.”
The ShopRite is also now home to the new Einstein FastCare health clinic. Led by nurse practitioners from the Einstein Healthcare Network, the clinic provides convenient and affordable basic and preventative health care. The walk-in clinic offers treatment for sore throats, earaches, sinus infections, flu or cold symptoms and urinary tract infections. A clinic visit costs $57 and most insurances are accepted.
“We have a convenient care clinic, which we know will be of great service to the community — but we also believe this will provide screenings, health education and will serve as a point of access to people in connecting them to primary care providers,” said Mary Beth Kingston, Chief Nurse Executive, Einstein Healthcare Network.
The clinic also houses a benefit bank office. Through this office, consumers can tap into SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Access Program), Medicaid, CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and other benefits.
The clinic was developed in partnership with UpLift Solutions and Bellin Health in collaboration with the Convenient Care Association. During the event, Brown noted that he was willing to work with other supermarket retailers who are interested in launching similar clinics.
Founded in 1988, Brown’s Super Stores is a family-owned and operated supermarket chain of 10 Philadelphia area ShopRite supermarkets. Brown founded Uplift Solutions in 2009, which has pioneered efforts to eliminate areas lacking access to fresh and affordable food.
State investigating grants to nonprofits with ties to Dwight Evans
Officials at the center of a confidential state probe are keeping their mouths shut as the Pennsylviania inspector general looks into two Philadelphia nonprofits with ties to state Rep. Dwight Evans, for alleged mishandling $1.5 million in state grants since 2006.
The state has frozen funds to the Urban Affairs Coalition and the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. Officials at the Department of Community and Economic Development confirmed Monday that funds to the two nonprofits had been frozen, but declined to say why.
Reports published over the weekend allege that the funds were frozen as part of an investigation into the mishandling of state grant monies by the UAC and the OARC.
Both groups have deep ties to Evans, who did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
They were also the recipients of quite a bit of state largesse during Evans’ 20-year tenure as chair of the Democratic Appropriations Committee. Since 1999, OARC has received $28 million in state grants, and UAC has gotten about $24 million.
Evans was once one of the most powerful men in Harrisburg. However, in 2010 he was ousted as committee chair by members of his own delegation, angered at how closely he controlled access to state grants.
OARC, a nonprofit dedicated to education, economic development and housing in West Oak Lane, was founded in 1983 by Evans.
A receptionist at OARC’s office said its CEO and president, Jack Kitchen, was out all week for the holiday and would return the Tribune’s call next week.
Evans also has close connections to the Urban Affairs Coalition and its president and CEO Sharmain Matlock-Turner. The group manages between $20 and $50 million annually, and has administered $390 million in state funds since 1999, Matlock-Turner said.
Investigators are trying to figure out if the coalition ignored grant rules, failed to keep track of grant monies and intentionally went around bidding regulations in its handling of a $400,000 grant for the North Philadelphia East Falls Neighborhood Initiative. State officials said coalition officials doled out the money in increments, cutting checks for $10,000, the maximum exemption for bidding rules.
In a statement released Monday, Matlock-Turner said she has made multiple requests to the state seeking the report that has served as the basis for media reports on the investigation, and declined to comment on the investigation until she had seen it.
“We have again requested a copy of the state audit and will explore every avenue to secure it,” she said. “It is tempting to respond to these accusations; it is painful not to. We must have a copy of the report so that we can respond to the inaccuracies in the article, review all charges and respond in detail.”
The Urban Affairs Coalition has engaged Ross Associates, a Center City public relations firm, to handle questions from reporters, and principal Bill Miller said after seeing the report UAC officials would “be eager to discuss it.”
In the period being investigated by state officials, a total of $1.5 million has been called into question. The report, cited Sunday by the Inquirer, said state officials were concerned with poor bookkeeping practices and a “lack of compliance” with the terms of the grants.
The largest of the grants being investigated was a $1 million allocation, administered by the UAC, to Harlee Manor, a for-profit nursing home operated by Leland Beloff, a former city councilman.
For-profit ventures are ineligible for state funds.
Beloff did not respond to requests for comment made through the nursing home.
Another of the grants was $365,000 that went to the Rev. James Hall, pastor at Triumph Baptist Church in Hunting Park, and an aide, Frances Stallings. After they each received a lump-sum payment in 2010 they continued to get checks – $3,333 to Hall and $2,812 to Stallings – until July 2011.
In documents apparently included in the state investigation, the monies were intended to fund several church programs, including one called “Praise and Dance” which requires participants to attend church.
State funds are also ineligible for projects tied to specific religious beliefs.
According to the audit, there was “no evidence or supporting documentation to validate what the two employees were doing . . . through the entire grant period.”
A recording at the church said its administrative offices were closed Mondays and no one responded to a voicemail left Monday morning.
The Inquirer based its report on a confidential document that has been seen by few others.
The Tribune, on Monday, was unable to get a copy of the report.
An official at Inspector General Kenya Mann Faulkner’s office told the Tribune that investigative reports were not made public.
“The office of inspector general does not release our investigative reports,” said James H. Timko, special assistant to the inspector general.
It was a fact that angered Matlock-Turner.
“I am outraged that – after 20 years of working in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), and with leaders in Harrisburg as a successful funds manager – we are being maligned in the Philadelphia Inquirer by a report that has been unavailable to UAC,” she said.
Barely a week has passed since the School Reform Commission publicized its controversial, “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” and charter school leaders are letting it be known they will fight any plan that attacks per-pupil funding or forces charters schools to adopt an enrollment cap.
Specifically, charter school educators are taking umbrage with the SRC’s plan to slash $149 million from charter school funding, which represents a whopping seven percent drop in per-pupil funding. The plan also calls for a three-year freeze on per-pupil payments, and finally, the enforcement of a mutually agreed upon growth schedule. SRC officials believe it can balance its budget in five years if these and other cuts are implemented.
“In my view, the [budget] issue should not be balanced on the backs of charter schools. The reality is, I don’t go along with that, and it’s not acceptable,” said state Representative Dwight Evans, who was among the leaders of the charter school movement nearly two decades ago, when he introduced legislation supporting the charter model. “First, let’s be clear, this is supposed to be about kids and parents, and there’s nothing in the law that gives the SRC the legal ability to [arbitrarily reduce payments]. There is nothing in the act, one way or the other, for the district to do this.”
Evans was referring to the Act 22 Charter School Legislation of 1997, and most charter proponents point to subsection 17-1723 (d), which states that, “enrollment of students in a charter school or cyber charter school shall not be subject to a cap or otherwise limited to any past or future action of a board of school directors … or any other authority, unless agreed to by the charter school or cyber charter school as part of a written charter.”
“We fought 15 years to get that law passed; 15 years we fought for the parents to have options, and we won’t let the school district mess with the kids,” Evans said, crediting longtime educator and attorney Dr. Walter D. Palmer as being an early leading protagonist of the cause. “The school district has its own ineptness, but we will not let them do this.
“Politically, they must not think of bringing this through Harrisburg, because I wouldn’t support it,” Evans said.
Palmer, at the forefront of the charter issue for almost three decades and who served as major supporter of the mid-’90s legislation, recently took the school district to court over the district’s attempts to cap enrollment at his successful Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. According to Palmer, the school district has unfairly targeted the charter school system while ignoring both the achievements and gains made by the charters — and the district’s own mismanagement of resources and funds.
“The district has been repressive to charter schools for at least ten years,” Palmer said, placing much of the blame of the perceived public school — charter school friction at the feet of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman and former SRC chairman Robert Archie. “All of this is really an all-out assault on the charter school movement, but [the SRC] cannot circumvent the court.”
Palmer has defied the SRC’s cap measure by continuing to accept students, and billing the state directly. Twice, Palmer said, the courts have agreed with him, and ruled the district must reimburse Leadership Learning more than $1.3 million in outstanding per-pupil payments. The district is currently exhausting its appeals in that matter and Palmer expects a ruling sometime next month.
Palmer recently testified in a City Council hearing helmed by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who is also the chair of Council’s education committee. There, Palmer made a series of suggestions to the SRC that he believes would help correct the problem.
“I suggested one of the things they do is completely dismantle renaissance schools, which are not charters. They are failed public schools that are reconstituted by the district and controlled by the district, but they then ask a charter school operator to come in and operate them; they are not charter schools,” Palmer said. “Then, I suggested they take those schools and turn them into promise academies. I also said they need to consolidate the mothballed schools; you have William Penn High School on Broad Street that’s sitting empty and costs a fortune to maintain.”
Some of the plans Palmer and other educators suggested — some going back years, if not decades — have finally made their way into the SRC’s reorganization blueprint, such as downsizing the central office; decentralizing certain services and generally trying to trim operations. But the decision to make these cuts came years after continual warnings.
Palmer said the school district really doesn’t have an excuse; the charter school legislation has been in place since 1997, and instead of working in conjunction with charter schools, it seems to him the district is bent on destroying them.
“Stop trying to bash charter schools,” Palmer said. “What we are experiencing now is a white hostile takeover of Black education in America. Folks have realized there are millions and millions to be made [in corporate education] right in the heart of the Black community, and this is happening in urban Black districts with Black folks on their watch.”
The issue of capped enrollment is very real; and doesn’t just affect Philadelphia and its stable of charter schools, as the Chester Upland Charter School recently won the right to uncapped enrollment. Basically, if a charter school is allowed uncapped enrollment, it can then theoretically build other schools to house the added enrollment, provided they meet staffing, safety and academic guidelines.
“They’ve gotten to a point where the school district is bankrupt; why should charters have to pay for the school district’s inability to manage its budget?” said Dr. Veronica Joyner, founder and chief administrative officer of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School of Philadelphia. “And now, [the SRC] is giving us less. Are they expecting the charters to fail, since they are taking money away instead of rewarding us?”
Like Palmer’s school, MCSCS has made Adequate Yearly Progress in consecutive years, and both its financial and academic records are strong. Joyner, like Palmer, is worried about the possibility of working with fewer funds.
“I am totally concerned about that,” said Joyner, who also serves as president and founder of Parents United for Better Schools, Inc. “The school district already takes almost 30 percent of the allotment given to us by the state. Now they want us to contribute more money when it’s not our failure. Charters are doing good, and there should be more support, not less.”
Joyner said she has a waiting list 7,000-plus students’ strong, which points to the academic prowess of her school. She believes that charters are a unique educational necessity that warrants saving.
“We’re talking about a school district that has failed,” Joyner said. “That budget didn’t just creep up on them like that — it’s been creeping up on them for years, and I am appalled no one saw that and did anything about it. We are already operating on much less than the public schools do. Now they are going to cut us, and expect us to do a better job with less.
“This is not fair to charter school operators, or the families we serve,” Joyner continued. “Because we are expected to do a better job than public schools — and we’ve shown that we are capable of doing that — we should have more support.”
Instead of aiming at charter schools, Joyner said, more attention should be paid to the district’s hierarchy and its plans for a new leader, since direction will no doubt come from on high. Joyner has been in education for more than 40 years, and senses a recurring pattern by the SRC.
“The district usually goes outside of Philadelphia to find a superintendent, and that has always been its first failure,” Joyner said. “My concern is we keep getting people who, on paper, can do these things, but come in and leave the district in a worse state. There are people right here in Philadelphia who can lead the district. I question [the SRC’s] motives.”
For a lifelong politician who swears he isn’t thinking of higher office, state Representative Dwight Evans sure sounded like a man with his eyes firmly set on the governor’s mansion in the next election.
But before that decision is made, Evans must first focus on his state representative primary. With elections looming on May 24, Evans spoke during a recent Philadelphia Tribune board meeting about his lengthy track record and public perception of him as a master deal maker.
Evans touted three main accomplishments: the creation of the “Northwest Gateway for Jobs and Economic Development,” which saw the creation of numerous shopping plazas; his support of the “Fresh Food Finance Initiative,” which takes an aggressive, grassroots approach to increasing the availability of whole foods; and his work to repeal the potentially damaging and discriminatory Pennsylvania Voter ID law, which Governor Tom Corbett recently signed.
To that end, Evans and fellow representative John Myers held a press conference Tuesday, April 10 at a local PennDOT service center, imploring people to become active and knowledgeable about the bill, known as HB 2313.
“We realize that sometime down the road, the courts may very well strike down the Pennsylvania Voter ID law,” Evans said at the press conference. “But I believe in taking a proactive step in removing this unnecessary and potentially costly statute.”
Evans elaborated on that stance during the board meeting.
“I’m sincerely horrified for the people” that will be affected by this bill, Evans said. “There is a lot of cynicism about politics, but I am trying to teach people what is possible.”
Evans arrived in Harrisburg in 1981, and almost from the beginning, he supported many economic reinvestment projects and proposals — but perhaps none as important as the five centers in Evans’ “Northeast Gateway” plan.
Those retail developments — Ogontz Plaza; the 2300 corridor of West Cheltenham Avenue; the 5300 block of Chew Avenue; 301 West Chelten Avenue and the gleaming development at 1501 N. Broad Street — are all shining examples of Evans’ ability to “take concepts and ideas and make them work throughout the city.”
Each of those five locations has at least one bank and one market serving as anchors. One of the newest developments is on Chelten Avenue, which houses an improved Save-a-Lot, a Citibank branch and an Anna’s Linens outlet store .
“The congregation of financial organizations is something you don’t see in the Black neighborhoods,” Evans said. “So what has happened as a spin-off from these supermarkets are banks, which in turn is good for the consumer, because it gives them choice, mortgages and business loans.
“This is the progression of a concept I started with building a neighborhood.”
The Fresh Food Financing Initiative is another of Evans’ signature involvements. The FFI, created by the Reinvestment Fund, is designed to “increase the number of supermarkets, or other grocery stores, in underserved communities across Pennsylvania,” according to a statement on the Food Trusts’ website.
“This statewide program meets the financing needs of supermarket operators that plan to operate in underserved communities where infrastructure costs and credit needs cannot be filled solely by conventional financial institutions,” the statement continued. “Under this program, TRF provides predevelopment grants and loans, land acquisition financing, equipment financing, capital grants for project funding gaps and construction and permanent finance. TRF also provides technical assistance and workforce services to its borrowers and grantees through this initiative.”
Three authors have independently hailed Evans’ support of the FFFI — Dr. Oran Hesterman in “Fair Food,” Stephen Goldsmith in “The Power of Social Innovation” and co-authors Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi in “Food Justice” — with Gottlieb and Joshi calling Evans a “champion” of the program.
Evans has made good on many of the goals and promises outlined in his 2010–2012 legislative agenda, including hosting the second regional job summit and supporting HB 2181 — also referred to as the “Made in Pennsylvania” package or the Manufacturing Tax Incentives plan — that would reward statewide manufacturers for keeping jobs here.
Locally, Evans touted his support of the West Oak Lane Charter School expansion, the renovation of Brown’s ShopRite and the renovation of the ice rink at Simons Recreation Center as just a few of the highlights of his many years in office. Along the way, Evans has supported numerous educational and economics-based workshops, and his three decades in public service has generated a sort of synergy between his office and the community.
As one example, Evans’ took Corbett to task over the governor’s budget, which slashed the funding for public schools and colleges while creating little in the way of jobs, opportunity and economic growth.
“This makes no sense,” Evans said. “The governor talks about jobs and creating the climate for jobs, but he damages the very institutions from where those workers will come. If there is a job to fill in a new or existing industry, we are determined to put that career opportunity into the hands of a Pennsylvanian.”
Although Evans repeatedly stated that he isn’t going to drop out of politics — nor would he run for mayor again — he is planning on writing his memoirs about his many years in office, and said he would contemplate another run at the governorship. His book will serve as sort of a blueprint for future politicians.
“I’m just going to tell my story,” Evans repeated, again swatting away questions about his future political role outside of the upcoming primary. “We just started in the last couple of months. I talk about my beginnings here at the Tribune, and how I won ‘Citizen of the Month’ and ‘Citizen of the Year,’” Evans said.
“That was the beginning, leading me into public life,” Evans continued. “And it will talk about how I was able to take concepts and ideas and make them a reality, all across the city.”
The reaction to the School District’s release earlier this week of the controversial Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools has been mixed, with many local and state elected officials either willing to give the plan a chance, think only a few elements of the plan will work, or wish to scrap the plan altogether.
The blueprint, crafted by the district’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen and submitted to the School Reform Commission on Tuesday, calls for sweeping changes — chief among them a complete reorganization of district headquarters, the closure of 64 public schools, and austerity measures which require a multi-million dollar union give back.
The plan also calls for the establishment of a privatization component — called “Achievement Networks” — which will provide certain services to the schools left standing. Overall, if every element of the plan falls in place, district officials believe these measures will lead to a balanced budget at the conclusion of the five-year plan.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown, co-chair of the education committee and herself once an elementary school teacher, praised the SRC for turning its full attention to the matter, and urged patience as the details of the plan are worked out.
“The School Reform Commission released a bold plan that would dramatically alter what education looks like and feels like to young people in our city. Whether this paradigm shift is the appropriate course of action remains to be seen, but as leaders, it deserves our full attention and respect—we cannot be dismissive about this new budget reality facing the School District of Philadelphia,” Reynolds Brown said. “The devil is always in the details. That notion will absolutely apply as we analyze the data and hear from school district officials as well as those who would be impacted. What does this do to class sizes? How do we make sure our students are not treated like numbers? Will the leadership of localized ‘Achievement Networks’ look like Philadelphia when it comes to diversity? These are the preliminary questions I will be asking.”
Knudsen and SRC chairman Pedro Ramos have repeatedly stated that the organization itself, and businesses participating in the Achievement Networks program will face tight scrutiny, and can be replaced if their products and outcomes are unsatisfactory.
“We need fundamental change and focus on the children and their needs,” Knudsen said the day the blueprint was released. We are righting the ship financially, and finally addressing the change we need to make. But it’s also about a process that is not simple.”
Complicating the process is the blueprint’s plan to shave $156 million from personnel, in the form of a restructured wage scale and benefit program.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who says the union membership already did its share of sacrificing when the district asked for several cuts over recent years, released a scathing statement, accusing the district of gross mismanagement.
“This restructuring plan has nothing to do with raising student achievement,” Jordan’s statement said. “The district provided a business model, not a research-based plan for turning around or supporting schools. By closing 64 schools, and transferring more and more children out of publicly accountable, neighborhood schools and into charter, cyber-charter and private schools, the School District of Philadelphia is saying it no longer wants to be in the business of educating children. It would rather manage a ‘portfolio’ than do the hard work my members do every day educating children. This is a cynical, right-wing and market-driven plan to privatize public education, to force thousands of economically disadvantaged families to select from an under-funded hodge-podge of EMO- and charter-company-run schools, and to convert thousands of professional and family-sustaining positions into low-paying, high-turnover jobs.”
The blueprint also calls for $122 million in cuts to the district’s overall operations, and a $149 million reduction in public charter school funding; that reduction would equal a 7 percent loss in per-pupil funding.
Knudsen cited New York City’s public school reformation as an example of school reform that works, but education expert Diane Ravitch said that “New York City has not had any great success.” Ravitch, in town earlier this week for the conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook that “New York used to boast of dramatic test score gains, but they disappeared in 2010.”
“They’ve gone through four reorganizations,” Ravitch said. “New York has changed so much I don’t know what version Philadelphia is talking about.”
Ravitch, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under several administrations, called plans for privatilization an “abdication of public responsibility.”
“I didn’t see anything that would cause learning to improve, just a lot of rhetoric that schools would achieve more than they used to because we say so,” Ravitch said. “If you really want to improve schools, you have to do something about teaching and learning. This is just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The blueprint as presented also raises other concerns. Knudsen said that even if the SRC adopts the plan, the district — or whatever remains in its place — wouldn’t actualize any savings until fiscal year 2013; and most of the plan hinges on the $90 million-plus the district is slated to get through the equally controversial Actual Value Initiative – or AVI. These are revenues from an adjusted real estate tax plan. However, AVI is now bogged down in council, and it’s hard to say if or when the school district will receive those funds – or if will be in the $90 million range school officials hope for.
City Council President Darrell Clarke had general praise for the SRC taking this important step, but was careful to note the limits of council’s power in overseeing the district’s spending.
“Some aspects of it make some sense, some are of some concern, but the reality is that things have to change - and they have to change dramatically,” Clarke said. “You have to deal with teachers, and you have to deal with structures.”
Emphasizing that he expected the plan to change, Clarke said he supported its basic premise, and the fact that it laid out a long term plan for the district.
Clarke lauded school commissioners for being open to suggestion from council.
Council is in the process of analyzing Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget, going over it line by line, which includes the assumption that the school district will receive about $94 million more in property tax revenues this year as the city moves toward a property tax system based on full market valuation.
With council expected to give an increased allocation to the district, Clarke expects members to exert more influence on how that money is spent.
That has not always happened in the past. Last year, under the leadership of former school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the district coaxed $53 million in additional funding from council. But, many council members felt she tricked them when it became clear after the fact that despite Ackerman’s statements to the contrary during the budget process, the district did have money to pay for full-day kindergarten. Ackerman used the threat of eliminating full-day kindergarten as her primary bargaining chip in budget talks with council.
“With this new $90 million request, there is going to be something in there that reflects our viewpoint. That’s just the bottom line,” Clarke said, adding that with new, more cooperative commissioners, he expected the SRC to include some of council’s suggestions.
“They’ve listened to our concerns and listened to our suggestions to this point,” he said.
Ultimately, spending decisions must be made by the SRC.
“Our role is limited,” Clarke said. “We’re simply viewed as the person who is supposed to say ‘aye’ when it comes to the school district budget. That’s essentially what we’ve been.”
While city council debates the merits of the blueprint, State Representative Dwight Evans can do little more than shake his head at this current mess. Evans urged for school reform almost two decades ago, when he submitted both the “School Reform and Accountability Proposal” and drafted a school reform bill for the House in 1997. The blueprint Knudsen submitted bears striking resemblance to many of the suggestions Evans either made through his proposal, or through the Neighborhood School Network intuitive.
“They have a lot of moving parts…there’s some things the state has to do and some things they have to do locally, and there are some things I am not for. For example, anything that would squeeze the aspect of choice around parents and kids, I would not be for,” said Evans, a longtime supporter of the charter school movement. “It flies in the face of being a child-centered system. Because how can you say, on one hand, these students get choice; but on the other hand, stifle choice for everybody else?
“Those are just two of the criticisms I would have,” Evans continued, noting that he agrees it was time for the district to act, but will fight any cuts to charter school funding. “If this is supposed to be about children and parents and not about a dysfunctional system, then in my view, anything these people try to do on the backs of charters is counter-productive. When you look at the numbers, they are basically trying to use charters to balance their budget.”
Staff Writer Eric Mayes contributed to this report.
Acting supt. Leroy Nunery describes 'Godfather' tactics
The long-awaited fact-finding report to Mayor Michael Nutter regarding Martin Luther King High School’s failed conversion to a charter school describes strong-arm tactics by former School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie Jr., and state Rep. Dwight Evans that were compared to something out of the “The Godfather,” according to acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery.
According to the report from Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman, Mosaica was correctly chosen by the school’s advisory committee to take over and operate MLK as a charter. But Evans, who has a long relationship with Foundations, interceded and, according to the report, “working outside the School District of Philadelphia’s public process for matching MLK with an outside operator, mounted an intense lobbying effort to change the outcome of the match process to secure Foundations for the School District of Philadelphia’s contract to manage MLK.”
The report also says that Archie, who resigned from his post as chairman of the SRC on Monday, publicly recused himself from the process — specifically, the SRC vote to confirm the awarding of the five-year, $12 million contract to Mosaica — but worked feverishly behind the scenes to support Evans’ ongoing attempt to take away the contract.
Mosaica was awarded the contract on March 16, 2001 in a vote by the SRC. Mosaica had already received the support of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the School Advisory Committee prior to the vote.
In perhaps the most damning bit of information in the 26-page report, Markman writes that Mosaica withdrew from the operation of MLK out of concern that the politically-connected Evans and Archie would frustrate the company’s ability to successfully operate MLK and jeopardize the company’s broader interests.
Reached by phone yesterday, Ackerman, who accepted a $905,000 buyout in August just months after receiving a vote of confidence from the SRC, said she had not read the report but after talking with Markman for hours “knew that the truth would be reported.”
“I lived what is in the report,” Ackerman said. “From what I have seen [the report] does exonerate my role in all of this. They tried to do everything to make me look like I didn’t have any integrity and that I had done something wrong.
“When she and I talked,” Ackerman, speaking of Markman, continued, “she told me that she was going to write the truth. I told her if she did that then it would be fine and that we could let the chips fall where they may, so I trust what is in that report.”
More than anything else, Ackerman feels the MLK fiasco doomed her tenure as schools chief.
“I think it is tragic, but I realized that it was the beginning of the end for me,” she said.
Ackerman did not want to disclose her present location, but she added that in her last few months as superintendent she was accompanied by an armed police officer.
“The last few months have been hell,” she said. “It is time for me to move past all of this. I hope now people will ask the right questions. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of questions that should be asked. There should be some kind of deeper inquiry into all of this.”
Archie disagrees with Ackerman’s recollections, and doesn’t feel the report is worth the paper it was written on.
“I am shocked and angered by the conclusions in the Markman report released today by Mayor Nutter’s office,” Archie said in a statement. “I emphatically reject the findings. They are not supported by facts, and are a reach to say the least. In some cases, they are pure fiction.”
Evans was equally angered over the report.
“I am stunned the city’s chief integrity officer would craft a document that characterizes me as a puppet master who has the ability to pull strings and make people dance,” Evans said. “That is simply not true. The report issued today, while written to suggest nefarious maneuvers, simply supports activities that have been well documented for months.”
Archie met personally with Markman. However, Evans, his aide Kim Turner, and Urban Affairs Coalition president and CEO Sharmain Matlock-Turner, all named in the report, refused to meet with Markman, who interviewed more than 30 people.
In a phone call from Washington, D.C., John Porter, president of Mosaica’s Turnaround Partners, expressed relief that “the truth had finally been told,” but expressed remorse that Mosaica would not have the chance to operate MLK, which is now a Promise Academy.
“I would say my reaction is that I’m glad it’s completed and the facts were stated and made public,” said Porter, who represented Mosaica during the entire process. “I am saddened that we were unable to work with Martin Luther King High. We felt we had built a great relationship with the parents and the children.
Mosaica, located in Atlanta, operates the Birney Preparatory School here. Asked if he felt the fallout from the MLK situation might dissuade Mosaica from pursuing other schools in the city, he said no.
“What I will say is that I am very, very disappointed,” Porter said. “Having said that, no, this will not deter us from continuing to try to establish a relationship with the school district. They are fine people. That’s all I’m willing to say about that matter.”
Foundations, with Evans’ help, has secured contracts with the West Oak Lane Charter School, MLK and the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology.
John Henderson, executive director of communications with the New Jersey-based company, said the entire process had been flawed from the beginning. He said that many events were not reported in the Markman report by the media, and he indicated that he saw inaccuracies in the report.
“Everything we have done at King for the last seven years was designed to improve the quality of education for the children. That has been our commitment during this entire ordeal. Overall, the most disturbing aspect of this entire situation is that it has taken the focus off of the students and their families.”
Henderson said Foundations will continue to maintain its relationship with Evans. However, he was not very familiar with Archie’s relationship to the company.
“It’s no secret that we have had a long relationship with Dwight in that neighborhood,” Henderson said. “In terms of Mr. Archie being an advocate for us, I would say that the relationship has been much more casual.”