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District counsel issues opinion that Simms had no conflict on Wister-Mastery vote

  • photo of simms at src meeting
    Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks

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This story has been updated

School District General Counsel Michael Davis has found that School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms had no conflict of interest when she introduced a last-minute resolution to pair Wister Elementary School in Germantown with Mastery Charter during Thursday night’s SRC meeting.

Simms’ sister, Quibila Divine, works for Citizen Consulting Group, a public relations and public engagement firm that has contracted with Mastery. Mastery spokesman Kirk Dorn said that the charter organization engaged Citizen between September 2014 and March 2015 for work in Camden, where it operates several charter schools under New Jersey's Renaissance program. Dorn said the contract terminated before Divine went to work for Citizen in April 2015.

“Upon reviewing the facts I have determined that no conflict of interest exists on the part of Commissioner Simms due to her sister, Quibila Devine’s [sic] relationship with Citizen Consulting Group,” Davis wrote in an opinion released by District spokesman Fernando Gallard after the Notebook asked for it. Davis came to that conclusion because Simms had nothing to do with Divine’s hiring, according to his opinion.

Gallard said that Davis reviewed the situation Friday – after the meeting – because he had not been aware of the issue previously. Public officials are supposed to ask for an opinion before taking an action that could fall under ethics rules. It is not customary to get an opinion on past conduct.

Simm’s move stunned the hundreds of people at the tense meeting, because it defied Superintendent William Hite’s recommendation. He had originally proposed to turn over Wister to Mastery under the District’s Renaissance schools initiative, but then changed his mind because, he said, the school had showed academic and other progress this past year. He said he felt it was no longer a candidate for such “drastic intervention.”

But the process fired up parents on both sides, and many of them viewed Mastery as offering a new chance to their children. Mastery operates several other schools in and near Germantown, and their students feed into Pickett, with grades 6 through 12. Emotions ran high at the five-hour meeting, and Simms, a North Philadelphia parent and grandparent, said she was responding to that. Hite said that she wrote the resolution during the meeting.

“My heart is heavy and I have pent-up emotions about the way the District has allowed many of our schools in low-income neighborhoods to fail our students and their families,” said Simms. “Families are literally crying for alternatives, and they have shown us by their choices that they are not pleased by the way we are educating their children.”

The Wister parents favoring Mastery met with her and other SRC members earlier in the week to press their case. At one point, Simms said, as a person living in a low-income community who has struggled for adequate schooling, “I am those parents.”

Her resolution was supported by SRC members William Green and Feather Houstoun. Houstoun said that perhaps Wister should not have been recommended for takeover in the first place, but that it was unfair to pull out the rug from the charter conversion process at this stage after it had gained the support of so many parents.

Simms’ potential conflict of interest was brought up at the meeting in an outburst by Pamela Williams, a city activist who opposed a Mastery takeover of Wister and shouted at Simms about her sister’s relationship with Mastery after her proposal passed.

Asked about the potential conflict after the meeting, Simms said, “I don’t know what my sister’s got.”

City Councilwoman Helen Gym also said that she intended look more deeply into potential conflicts of interest on the SRC.

Michael Cooke, enforcement manager for the City Ethics Board, said that it has no jurisdiction over officials of the School District.  The state Ethics Board covers their conduct.

Generally in ethics codes, siblings are included when it comes to conflict-of-interest cases, Cooke said.

Davis explained in his opinion that Divine started working for Citizen Consulting in April 2015 and that Simms was “not involved in Ms. Devine’s procurement of her work with Citizen, and was not involved with Citizen’s hiring of Ms. Devine. With no involvement by Commissioner Simms in Ms. Devine’s hiring by and work with Citizen, Commissioner Simms did not use the authority of her office or any confidential information received through her holding public office, there is no conflict of interest under the State Ethics Act.”

Some of Simms’ supporters were outraged that the ethics issue was even raised.

Anna Figueroa, a Wister grandparent, wrote in response to a Notebook article mentioning the issue that it was “disgraceful” to “call into question the ethics of Commissioner Simms and her sister, Quibila A. Divine.”

She said that Divine, a former caseworker in the Department of Public Welfare, worked for years with parents to help them understand their rights under education laws.

Simms, she said, “has a passion for doing what is right for low-income families and their children. Contrary to what is being reported, it was a sign of courage for her to introduce a resolution that honored the promise that Dr. Hite originally made to Wister parents to improve this school for their children. ... I applaud the strength of Commissioner Simms and her willingness to challenge those who wish to maintain the status quo and continuously keep black and brown children ignorant to how high they can rise.”

Outside Wister school on Friday afternoon, parents Alisha Grant and Mary Jane Bey both said that they were surprised but grateful that the SRC reversed Hite’s decision.

“Mastery is one of the top charter schools in the city,” said Grant, who spoke at Thursday’s meeting and said she was among those who met with SRC members earlier in the week. “Our children deserve a fair chance at a great education.” She is the mother of a Wister 2nd grader.

Bey, who has a daughter in 3rd grade at Wister, said another daughter graduated from Mastery-Pickett and is now at community college.

“Mastery is all about college,” she said.

Grant said that she hopes Mastery will ultimately take over Wister and help revitalize the community. The SRC will not take a final vote until March or April, after Mastery submits a full charter proposal.

Opponents of a Mastery takeover want to see Wister become a “community school,” under the model that brings social services and other supports into the building. That is the reform strategy favored by Mayor Kenney and Council President Darrell Clarke.

Said Grant: “Though we disagree, we’ve got to come together as a community to make the right choices for our children.”

The full text of Chief Counsel Michael Davis' opinion follows:

"I have considered the allegation of a conflict of interest for SRC commissioner Sylvia Simms, and upon reviewing the facts I have determined that no conflict of interest exists on the part of Commissioner Simms due to her sister, Quibila Devine's [sic] relationship with Citizen Consulting Group. Ms. Devine started working for Citizen Consulting Group, which is based in Chicago, in April, 2015. Commissioner was not involved in Ms. Devine's procurement of her work with Citizen, and was not involved in Citizen's hiring of Ms. Devine. With no involvement by Commissioner Simms in Ms. Devine's hiring by and work with Citizen, Commissioner Simms did not use the authority of her office or any confidential information received through her holding public office, there is no conflict of interest under the State Ethics Act. I understand that Citizen has a contract with Mastery for work outside of Philadelphia, but that does not alter my legal conclusion that this does not create a conflict of interest for Commissioner Simms since she had nothing to do with Ms. Devine's hiring by or relationship with Citizen." 

Note: The original version of this story said that Mastery has a contract with Citizen Consulting Group. It has been changed to note that Mastery no longer has a contract with Citizen. 

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.