This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
“Of course they’re public records,” said Kayne Deissroth, board secretary of the Philadelphia Electrical and Technology (PE&T) Charter High School in Center City, ushering a Notebook reporter back into her office and pulling a slender manila folder filled with documents out of a file cabinet.
A day earlier, a set of similar documents was emailed to the Notebook by the KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, marked “Right-to-Know request granted.”
The documents were copies of the Statement of Financial Interests, a form that must be filed annually by every public official and candidate for public office in Pennsylvania. All charter school board members are considered public officials and must file the forms.
But getting access to them isn’t always this easy.
The disclosure forms are public records under the state’s right-to-know law, meaning they must be made available when requested. Those for officials of the School District of Philadelphia are kept in the District central office at 440 N. Broad St.
Those of Philadelphia charter schools are kept in the individual schools or their business offices, and their accessibility appears to be less assured.
While some charters like PE&T and KIPP expressed eagerness to cooperate with the Notebook’s request for the disclosure forms, others ignored it.
Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz and others see the forms as a defense against conflicts of interest by public officials.
In his Review of Charter School Oversight, released in April, Butkovitz found repeated examples of charter board members using their positions to benefit their private business interests, or those of their families or friends, particularly in the area of real estate holdings. Filling out the forms, he says, may at least “remind public officials of financial interests that may conflict with their duties.”
In his report, however, Butkovitz found many of the forms missing, improperly filled out or containing “misleading information.” He recommended that copies of forms be kept at the Philadelphia School District’s charter office in addition to the schools themselves.
“We’ve had problems with some charters,” said John Contino, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, which has jurisdiction over enforcing compliance under the state Ethics Act. “But maybe the word just hasn’t gotten out.”
In May, the Notebook emailed right-to-know requests to KIPP and 11 other charters, asking for the financial disclosure forms or the charter’s process for obtaining them. State law requires some form of response within five business days, but seven of the 12 charters – Boys Latin, Alliance for Progress, New Media Technology, Maritime Academy, People for People, West Oak Lane, and Russell Byers – failed to respond at all.
In addition to KIPP, three charters responded positively: Christopher Columbus, Community Academy of Philadelphia, and Mathematics, Civics and Sciences, sending request forms or offering to allow the records to be inspected on site.
First Philadelphia Charter School responded through its general counsel stating that it would need an additional 30 days to respond to the request, an extension that is allowed by law.
A Notebook reporter also visited six charter schools. Only PE&T immediately made the forms available for inspection, although an on-the-spot response is not required by state law.
Four other schools either offered to set up visits to view the records or supplied contact information for the individual specifically responsible for releasing the information.
Only one would not supply contact information. The business office at Hardy Williams Charter School in West Philadelphia said that requests had to be funneled through a “board liaison” whom they would not identify. A request to the liaison for a reply by email was not answered.
The right-to-know law requires that an agency specifically designate an official or employee to act as an Open Records Officer.
Asked about the wide range of responses to right-to-know requests, Guy Ciarrocchi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, said schools are stretched thin: “Unlike traditional public schools…the administrative staff at most charter schools can be as few as a handful of people, if not less. Despite this reality, public records are public and should be made available to the public.”
The financial disclosure forms require that the filer list information including any interests in property involved in transactions with governmental bodies, direct or indirect sources of any income over $1,300 a year, and additional information about any businesses in which they are either an officer or have at least 5 percent of the equity.
Failing to file the forms can bring civil penalties of up to $250 a day, and deliberately filing false or misleading information on the forms is a criminal violation. Contino said his agency lacks the staff to undertake wide-ranging investigations, but responds to public complaints.
For Philadelphia charter schools, the forms themselves are likely to get more scrutiny soon. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman told City Council on May 10 that the School District would perform random audits of 10 percent of charter schools each year. The District now reviews the disclosure forms only when charters file for renewal every five years.
The state Ethics Commission can also initiate civil proceedings for violation of the Ethics Act and has done so in three cases involving charter schools since 2004, one of them in Philadelphia.
In 2007, Sheryl Perzel, wife of state Rep. John Perzel and former president of the New Foundations Charter School, signed a consent agreement with the Commission to pay a $2,000 fine for ethical violations including real estate dealings involving the Perzel family and the school.