This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
School Reform Commission chairman Robert Archie said Friday that he “doesn’t remember” who alerted him about a potential conflict of interest on the advisory council that voted on matching West Philadelphia High School with a turnaround provider – though he thought the complaint serious enough to delay the SRC’s approval and launch an investigation.
On Friday, Archie, District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and West principal Saliyah Cruz made their first public comments on the ongoing saga at the beleaguered neighborhood high school.
Ackerman said she knew several weeks ago that one parent on the School Advisory Council (SAC) had a part-time job with the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF), but not that three others received stipends for their work on a parent outreach team. The four constituted half the parent representation on the 15-member panel, which voted on May 24 to match West with Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now. PEF has a longtime affiliation with Hopkins and would have been a local subcontractor in the West partnership.
On May 26, rather than voting on a resolution that would have ratified the SAC decision, the SRC pulled the resolution from consideration. A week later, with the investigation into the alleged conflict of interest incomplete, the District decided to defer West’s inclusion in Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative until 2011-12.
"If there’s a perception or appearance of a conflict of interest, wouldn’t you want this District to do something about it?” asked Ackerman.
Archie said the SRC knew nothing about the alleged conflict of interest until the commission’s closed-door deliberations on May 26.
"I don’t remember the source [of the information]," he said. "It was made known to us during the executive session. One of the SRC commissioners decided there was the appearance of a conflict."
Archie later said he was that commissioner.
Recounting the day’s turn of events, Archie apparently misspoke, initially saying that the SRC voted during the executive session to withdraw the resolution matching West with Hopkins. Ackerman, however, corrected the SRC chair and said that the decision to withdraw the resolution occurred during the SRC’s public meeting immediately following.
A reporter pointed out that the SRC did not take a recorded vote on the matter in its public meeting and asked Archie if he had polled his fellow commissioners. Archie concurred that he privately polled them during the public portion of the meeting, and that a majority of the commissioners said the resolution should be withdrawn. He did not say who they were.
Four of the five commissioners were present that day and the fifth, Ambassador David Girard-diCarlo, participated via speaker phone.
With the District’s investigation into the alleged conflict underway and increasing media scrutiny being paid to the situation, many members of the West SAC are feeling stung by the accusations and implications that they did something wrong as part of their volunteer participation on the advisory council.
Ackerman said that the parents were not at fault.
“I support these parents, I really do,” she said. “The problem is [some] were being paid by one of the organizations that stood to benefit [from the Renaissance selection process.]”
Friday, the SAC sent a request to Ackerman and the SRC asking that the SRC ratify the match with Hopkins based on an analysis done by the Education Law Center (ELC). The memo, prepared by ELC attorney David Lapp, concludes that not only was there no legal basis for a conflict of interest complaint against the SAC, but that the whole notion of conflict of interest does not apply to advisory boards and that a "common sense view" of the situation indicates no conflict as well.
Ackerman and Archie did not respond directly to the findings of the ELC memo.
Ackerman also contradicted an earlier Notebook report that both she and Benjamin Rayer, who is running the Renaissance process for the District, were told at a meeting on May 10 that several parents had been paid by PEF.
"The first I heard was on that Wednesday [May 26]," said Ackerman. "I did know that Carla Jackson was working part-time for PEF, but I did not know that there were three other parents [also working for PEF]. We could have dealt with this long before it got to this point.”
However, Carla Jackson’s husband Keith – one of the three parents – said that he told Ackerman directly of his involvement at the May 10 meeting.
"I told Dr. Ackerman two weeks before we took the vote that I was a parent and was on the parent outreach team,” he said. “She certainly knew before [the SAC] voted [on May 24]."
Complicating matters, Jackson also said he had no idea that PEF was associated with Johns Hopkins. “No one ever said that to me,” he said. “If they [had], I would have said that sounds like a conflict of interest and stepped down.”
Furthermore, only two of the four parents on the PEF team voted for Hopkins. The other two choices were to become a Promise Academy under Ackerman’s supervision or to be converted to a charter school by Mastery Charter.
Carol Fixman, the director of PEF, repeated her earlier statement that PEF staff told the four parents to disclose to Ackerman and others the stipends they received for their outreach work.
“Our staff had advised the parents that there could be construed a conflict of interest on their part because they were a part of the parent outreach team and were paid for their work,” said Fixman.
Fixman said she could not comment on whether the parents fully understood that the potential for conflict derived from PEF’s relationship with Hopkins.
The entire SAC process at West was rife with confusion on multiple fronts for months before the controversy became public, making it difficult to piece together exactly who knew what – and when. But despite the many issues and strong emotions at play in the process, the accelerated Renaissance selection timeline left little room for the conflicts to be resolved effectively.
Ackerman apparently tried to chart a clear course for the group at the May 10 meeting, when she directed the council to reconstitute itself in order to comply with the District’s requirement that at least 51 percent of council members be parents.
"On May 10, I was there to fight for parents," said Ackerman on Friday.
In order to ensure that the group had viable options from which to choose, she also reintroduced the possibility of West becoming a Promise Academy. At the end of the meeting, she gave the group a two-week extension to resolve their issues and make their recommendation.
Although the voting members of the council eventually coalesced around Hopkins, Ackerman’s intervention and the extension on the council’s deliberations were clearly not enough to generate any consensus among the many parties – both on and off the SAC – who are concerned about the future of West.
When asked what will come next for the West SAC, Ackerman replied that “we’ll reconstitute that council and move on. We can’t revote now. We need to look forward and hope that it doesn’t happen again.”
As part of their plan to support West in the coming year, Ackerman also said that the District would be pursuing recommendations from SchoolWorks, a private firm hired to conduct a review of West and the other 13 Renaissance Schools.
Also on Friday, teachers at West had to formally indicate their intentions for next year. Principal Cruz said that 19 of the West’s 72-member teaching staff had found positions at other schools via the District’s site selection process, but that at least some were expected to return to West next year anyway.
"They’ve really been treated terribly," said Jordan. "This entire process has been run through very quickly without a lot of planning or communication to staff or to this union."
The most frustrating aspect of this week’s developments, said Jordan, is that even if test scores this year and next indicate improvements in academic performance, the school will still have to go through the Renaissance process again next year.
“We’re not doing something for West that’s different from the other [Renaissance] schools,” Ackerman said Friday, explaining that the 13 other Renaissance Schools don’t get to opt out of the process if their scores go up.
Ackerman also said that she would not accept a proposal from the staff itself for a turnaround plan under the so-called “innovation” option, which encourages in-house educators to try their hands at school makeovers. West’s staff submitted a plan this year that was rejected. Ackerman has said that only educators with proven track records can submit such proposals.