The inaugural parent congress drew several dozen people to hear panel discussions on topics such as choosing schools and working with principals.
One sponsor was Simms’ group Parent Power, a parent organizing group based in North Philadelphia. It was initially founded by Simms to support the efforts of then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
Parent Power is using funds from a three-year, $75,000 federal Race to the Top grant to create a new advocacy project called “The PLAN” (short for Parent Leaders Advisory Network).
Other funding for the congress came through a group called Educational Opportunities for Families (EOF), tied to PSP, a private fund that supports charter expansion and “high quality” options. Divine frequently represents EOF in public.
The goal of the congress project is to help parents engage in school governance and advocacy, for example, by joining School Advisory Councils (SACs) or by joining districtwide advisory boards and lobbying SRC members directly.
Simms is the champion of a current SRC effort to create parent-dominated SACs in each school, clarify their role, and beef up their influence.
“There are no limitations,” said Divine of the parent advocates’ potential activities.
Divine said the new parent congresses would be agnostic on questions of “school type,” engaging supporters of District, charter, and parochial schools.
But the congress’ motto – “No More Waiting for Quality Schools” – was first used by PSP in a recent charter-expansion campaign. The final session at the April 16 congress on “next steps” featured four supporters of charter expansion: SRC Commissioner Bill Green, PSP spokesperson Jacob Waters, and two officials of charter organizations. There were no advocates for traditional District-run schools or the community schools initiative.
That kind of apparent, but unacknowledged, imbalance concerns those who watched Divine at Wister.
“Whenever I see the word ‘quality,’ I know what’s behind it,” said Jones.
Divine said she believes there is nothing wrong with Parent Power, Simms’ group, organizing parents to potentially influence Simms and her fellow commissioners on crucial policy matters. Divine implied that Simms can separate how she votes on the SRC from any advocacy work with parents in favor of a particular school-reform direction.
“Sylvia as Parent Power is totally different from Sylvia as a commissioner,” she said. “You’re striving to mix apples and oranges.”
Christine Carlson, head of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition and a panelist at last weekend’s congress, said she believed it was impossible for Divine or anyone else to sustain a community-organizing effort without being transparent about the funding – and possible interests – behind it.
Carlson, who accepted the invitation to speak without knowing about “the shadow” hanging over Divine’s activities, recommended that Divine share as many details as possible.
“You need to be honest,” Carlson said. “We all don’t have to agree with one another [but] somehow we’ve got to come and do that.”
Another speaker at the congress, Green, was unconcerned about the lack of clarity in the event’s funding.
“I don’t look into the source of funding of the people who invite me to come speak to families,” said Green, who is suing Gov. Wolf to regain the SRC chairmanship. Wolf replaced Green with Marjorie Neff; Green says it was due in part to their political disagreement over charter expansion.
Asked whether it was a good-government practice to have undisclosed funders organizing parents to lobby the SRC, Green laughed out loud and said, “You must be kidding, right? You mean like the PFT ...? Ask them if they are funding any people who speak at Council, or City Council candidates, or others. It’s all opaque.”
Union officials said that all of their public advocacy and candidate support is on the record, and Green could not cite a specific instance of possibly undisclosed advocacy on the part of the union.
“I think that there has been in the past,” Green said.
Wister vote due this week
With the final vote on Wister set for Thursday, April 28, no further information about Divine’s role or its implications for Simms appears forthcoming from any official source. The State Ethics Board has received a formal complaint, but any investigation would not be complete before the scheduled vote.
PFT president Jerry Jordan and some union allies – including the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, an opponent of charter expansion – have called on the SRC to investigate Divine’s role and shed light on possible conflict questions for Simms. APPS is an organization led by retired teachers, nurses, and counselors, and it also includes parents and community members.
But SRC Chair Neff confirmed that no such inquiry is pending. “That’s not an SRC function,” she said.
Under state law, the District is not required to investigate commissioners’ disclosures for accuracy.
Simms has long pleaded ignorance about what Divine does, saying she knows nothing about her sister’s professional activities. Nor have District officials weighed in on the implications of a possible Divine-PSP partnership.
“It is the practice of the Office of General Counsel not to respond to hypotheticals,” said District Counsel Michael Davis in a statement.
Several prominent officials, including the mayor, have called for clear answers about whether Divine helped organize community support for Mastery’s bid for Wister.
“If true, these allegations are troubling,” wrote Kenney spokeswoman Deana Gamble. “Mayor Kenney urges all those involved to proactively disclose any relationships that would shine a light on this situation."
City Council member Helen Gym is a sharp critic of the SRC’s practice of converting some District schools to charters who was elected with strong support from the PFT. She promised to examine the issue closely the next time District officials appear at City Hall for public hearings.
If any commissioner failed to disclose that a close relative was professionally organizing Philadelphia residents so that they might influence the SRC, Gym said, “that commissioner should step down.”
Simms, Divine, and their supporters have defended themselves as passionate and honest advocates. They say they are frustrated by questions about possible conflicts of interest.
Mastery officials say that “according to everything that we know,” the Wister process was transparent and the public should have confidence in the SRC’s decision to revive the charter provider’s bid.
“We are greatly encouraged by the community’s enthusiasm about working with us,” said Mastery spokesperson Kirk Dorn. “We believe the SRC’s decision was based solely on Mastery's history of performance and the overwhelming community support for a Mastery partnership.”
However, Mastery confirmed that there were activities of the pro-Mastery Wister parent group, including advocacy before the SRC, that it did not organize.
That leaves Jones and other pro-District Wister parents believing that their own efforts to influence the SRC’s Wister decision – launched with the help of volunteers from Parents United for Public Education (co-founded by Helen Gym) and with occasional help with PR from the teachers' union — were undercut by paid PR professionals who did not reveal their interests.
They worry that the parent congresses will prove to be a covert vehicle for pro-charter advocacy, aiming, for example, to fill newly empowered SACs with charter-expansion supporters.
Jones said that despite all the unanswered questions, her group still holds out hope that the SRC will reject Mastery’s bid and that Wister could end up as a District-run community school.
“I hate to feel that we’re down and out, because we’re not,” said Jones. “But the clock is ticking.”
Editor’s note: Councilwoman Helen Gym was one of the founders of the Notebook in 1994. Christine Carlson is a Notebook member and occasionally contributes commentaries.