Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in East Germantown, slated to be converted to a charter, will instead become a District-run Promise Academy next year. The switch came after revelations about behind-the-scenes dealings by high-level officials, the withdrawal of two charter operators, and the launching of a city inquiry.
The King School Advisory Council (SAC) endorsed this solution in early May, following nearly two months of intrigue and controversy that further unsettled the already-beleaguered school.
The King saga also raised questions about the integrity of the District's Renaissance Schools turnaround process, in which multimillion-dollar charter school operating contracts are at stake. Seven other District schools are being turned over to charter operators this year.
Archie's involvement in question
In both King's case and in the awarding of two so-called Promise Neighborhood charter contracts to Universal Companies, School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie appeared to play a key role even while recusing himself from the official vote.
The contract at King, which has 1,100 students, is potentially worth $60 million over five years.
Two operators, Foundations, Inc. – which has managed the school for eight years and is allied with State Rep. Dwight Evans – and Atlanta-based Mosaica Education, competed for the charter, presenting their turnaround plans to the community in February.
As a part of the District's process, parents and community members on King's School Advisory Council vetted proposals, then voted on their preferred provider. The group recommended that King be managed by Mosaica, a for-profit company with schools around the world.
On March 16, it appeared that the SRC had honored that recommendation when it voted 3-0 in Mosaica's favor.
The vote came despite a public appeal to the SRC by Evans to instead award the charter to Foundations, a New Jersey-based nonprofit with which he has had a lengthy association.
But less than 24 hours after the vote, Mosaica executive John Q. Porter, who had declared himself "elated" upon wining the charter, "respectfully withdrew" his company from King. District officials said they were stunned. Evans, in an interview with the Notebook and NewsWorks, took credit for the withdrawal, saying that he continued pushing for Foundations even after the SRC vote.
Weeks later it emerged that Archie, who had recused himself because he and his law firm have ties with Foundations, had brokered a closed-door meeting about the future of King immediately after the SRC vote. In the meeting with Archie were Evans, Porter, and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's second-in-command, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery.
What happened at the meeting that may have caused Mosaica to withdraw has never been made public, but Nunery described it as "shocking" in a statement later, without providing any detail.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who appointed Archie to the SRC, has launched a probe into the dealings at King, but no findings had been announced as of mid-May.
Speaking up for Universal
In the Universal case, Archie spoke up publicly at an April 27 SRC meeting to laud the organization's work just prior to the body's vote on whether to grant the company charters to operate Audenried High and Vare Middle schools.
Archie recused himself from that vote as well because he is a long-time friend of founder Kenny Gamble and has sat on Universal boards. His law firm has also represented the organization.
Experts on ethics issues told the Notebook that under Pennsylvania law, officials with a conflict of interest are expected to refrain from commentary as well as from voting.
The SRC voted 3-0, with Archie abstaining, to grant the two charters to Universal, potentially worth $45 million over five years.
The District matched Universal with Audenried and Vare without formal community input, unlike the other Renaissance charters. Officials said these schools were handled differently because Universal has secured a federal planning grant to create a "Promise Neighborhood" in South Philadelphia, working with the District and several other partners to provide social as well as educational services. Universal hopes to win an implementation grant from the U.S. Department of Education but has vowed to proceed with its full program at the two charters regardless of whether it gets the funds.
Some teachers, students, and community members at Audenried strongly opposed turning over the school to Universal right up to the final vote. They said that the limited available test data indicated that the school was making progress since reopening three years ago. District officials maintained Audenried was low-performing on a number of indicators and rejected the evidence of improvement as insignificant and inconclusive.