This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Bill Hangley, Jr.
Members of a key parent committee at Martin Luther King High say they are pleased to see Foundations Inc. withdraw from contention for the school’s charter.
But they still want to know the whole story about the role played by School Reform Commission Chair Robert L. Archie in the unfolding drama.
King’s School Advisory Council (SAC) has called for a full investigation into Archie’s role, citing three recent encounters that have left the group questioning the SRC chair’s impartiality when it comes to Foundations.
Conchevia Washington, chair of the King SAC, said Archie actively encouraged her group to support Foundations, despite his publicly declared conflict of interest in the matter, and despite his fellow commissioners’ unanimous support of another company. This pressure came both in a chance encounter with Washington and in a private meeting school commissioners held with the school council.
Archie recently acknowledged that he was present in a closed-door March 16 meeting that helped Foundations get back in the running for the charter school contract, after losing out to a rival, Mosaica Education, in a lengthy public process.
Yet Archie, an attorney and appointee of Mayor Michael Nutter, has recused himself publicly from Foundations-related votes because his firm, Duane Morris, has represented the organization.
Archie has said that his goal at the private meeting just hours after a SRC vote granting King’s charter to Mosaica, was to facilitate a discussion between Mosaica and his longtime friend State Rep. Dwight Evans. Evans, whose 203rd House district includes many households that send students to King, badly wanted Foundations to run King, a 1,081-student school in Germantown. Foundations, a New Jersey-based nonprofit with close ties to Evans, has managed King under contract with the School District since 2003. The charter to run King is worth an estimated $60 million over five years to its manager.
Washington and her fellow SAC member Wanda Lassiter said that in an emotionally charged meeting April 13 between the SAC and the SRC, Archie used his time to aggressively probe the SAC’s voting procedures, in what they saw as an attempt to find a “loophole” that would justify Foundations’ bid. The SAC members also said that in the same meeting, Archie responded to a clear invitation to explain his role with “25 seconds of silence.”
And Washington said that in a chance encounter April 12 on a Center City street, Archie personally urged her to “forget Mosaica” and accept Foundations.
“He said, ‘I talked to Dwight last night, and I said, we’ve got make this work. We’ve got to come to some resolution that Foundations is getting what they want, that the SAC is getting what they want, that everyone comes together,’” Washington said of the conversation, which took place the day before the King SAC met the SRC.
Archie has told The Inquirer that he called the private March 16 meeting and that his only goal was to help Evans and Mosaica work together. He also revealed that a District official was present at the meeting, but neither he nor District officials have said who that was. He declined repeated requests from the Notebook/NewsWorks to discuss details of the discussions on March 16, April 12, and April 13.
Tearful exchange: King SAC meets the SRC
As the District-sanctioned volunteer group charged with overseeing King’s transformation into a charter school, the King SAC has been at the center of the debate over Foundations’ role at the school since the District’s Renaissance process began in January. The SAC’s membership is somewhat fluid, depending on who chooses to come to its regular meetings but includes parents, neighbors, a student, and the school nurse. Washington said the SAC currently includes 11 active members.
The SAC’s 8-1 vote recommending Mosaica Education, an Atlanta-based, for-profit company, over Foundations, came after a long series of public meetings featuring extensive input from students and parents. Their decision was endorsed by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and led directly to the SRC’s March 16 vote granting Mosaica the right to negotiate the King charter under the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative.
Mosaica withdrew just a day after winning the contract, less than 24 hours after the closed-door meeting at District headquarters between Archie, Evans, Mosaica’s John Q. Porter, and the unnamed District staffer.
Following Mosaica’s surprise withdrawal, the King SAC took no public position while deliberating its options. It eventually decided to press the District to retain control of the school for a year, rather than turn the school over completely to Foundations in September. With the help of Ackerman, the SAC arranged to meet with the full SRC. On April 13, two King SAC members, representing the entire group, sat down with Archie, the other three commissioners, and Ackerman, with a third SAC member joining part of the meeting by conference call.
Ackerman and the four commissioners did not respond to detailed requests for comment on the meeting’s contents.
But according to the two SAC members, Archie aggressively probed their group’s history in what seemed to them an attempt to find a procedural justification for a role for Foundations.
Archie “was trying to find a flaw in the system,” said Washington. “He was trying to find a loophole that was not there.”
“He kept trying to argue the point that the SAC chose Foundations as their second choice,” recalled her fellow SAC member, Wanda Lassiter. “The man just kept repeating himself. We got tired of arguing about it, and [Commissioner Johnny Irizarry] drove the conversation away from it, because it wasn’t going to get settled.”
The District’s official position at the time was that under the rules of the Renaissance process Foundations, as the only other candidate for King besides Mosaica, represented King’s “second choice” and thus qualified for the school’s charter.
The women wanted to use the meeting talk about the King SAC’s preference to delay the charter transformation for a year, but Archie, they said, pressed them hard about their group’s procedural history, such as its 8-1 pro-Mosaica vote.
“He kept saying it was 7-2, and I said, ‘Great that you heard that, but where is that documented?’” Washington said. “At one point he had to be told that we had a District liaison there the night that we voted. So it wasn’t just us as a SAC voting among ourselves.”
Archie had other procedural questions too, the SAC members said. “He also wanted to make sure that we had at least 51 percent parental participation in the vote,” a District requirement, Washington recalled. “And we exceeded that – we had 55 percent.”
They said Archie also raised questions about an audience survey from a public meeting at King in which he said Foundations outpolled Mosaica by 118-105. “We told him we had never heard of such a score,” said Lassiter, who said the King SAC had in fact conducted a survey that night (the SAC helped run King’s Renaissance meetings), but did not take controlled steps to ensure its accuracy.
Washington and Lassiter said that the other commissioners asked about conditions in the school, the SAC’s impression of Evans’ neighborhood education network, and the possible effects of deferring the charter transition for a year. Lassiter said the other commissioners seemed thoughtful and engaged, listening carefully and taking notes.
Meanwhile, Archie struck them as lawyerly and aggressive, the King SAC members said, and at one point things got heated. “We both sat at that table and cried,” said Lassiter. “This is how bad it had gotten. And it was because he was arguing with us.”
But they also said Archie went silent after Washington told him she believed that “someone else” had been in the room with Evans and Mosaica’s Porter on the evening of March 16, the day before the company abruptly withdrew.
The SAC members both said that after Washington made her statement, they stared at Archie – who days later would admit that he had, in fact, been in the pivotal closed-door meeting – and that neither he nor anyone else in the room responded.
“Mr. Archie got really quiet,” said Lassiter. “Nobody said anything, and it was pretty much silence for 20, 25 seconds.”
“You could have heard two pins drop,” said Washington.
She said she did not, however, ask Archie directly whether he or anyone else had been in the room with Evans and Porter.
Chance encounter, strong pitch: ‘Forget Mosaica’
Washington reported one other encounter that left her with the strong impression that Archie, who has been scrupulous about announcing his conflicts of interest in public meetings, was actively supporting Foundations’ bid, despite his own commission’s vote in favor of Mosaica.
Washington, who works for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Archie made a detailed pitch for Foundations when the two met by chance in front of her Center City office on April 12, the day before the King SAC’s scheduled meeting with the SRC.
“He said, ‘You know, look, I know that you guys don’t want Foundations, but you don’t have a choice,’” said Washington, mother of a King sophomore. “This was definitely the hard sell. It sounded like a politician’s stump speech.”
Washington said she reminded Archie that Mosaica’s position at the time was that it would come back to King if it had the full support of the community.
But Archie dismissed the possibility, Washington said.
“He said, ‘Forget Mosaica, that’s a done deal.’”
Washington said that Archie was congenial, but persistent. ‘“He clearly said, ‘Look, I’ve got a plan. You take what you liked from the Mosaica proposal, and add it into the Foundations proposal, we’ll write it in there,’” Washington recalled.
Washington said Archie offered to be personally accountable, giving her access to his chief of staff and arranging for quarterly reports to come directly to him. “He said, ‘If they’re not working for you, and they’re not doing the things they promised to do, you come to me, and we’ll fire them,’” Washington said.
She declined the offer and they parted cordially, she said. Archie made no mention of this proposal in front of his fellow commissioners at the meeting the next day, Washington said.
Students face uncertain future
Now that Foundations has announced that it will walk away from King, District officials say that the school will still be transformed into a charter, but not until 2012-13. The District has promised to provide extra resources and work closely with the King SAC throughout the coming year.
Washington, elected to her position as chair by her fellow King SAC members, said that navigating the recent string of dramatic developments has been exhausting. “I’m shopping for a deserted island,” she joked.
She’s pleased that the organization the King SAC rejected will now be out of the picture, but she’s disappointed that the students have seen what started as an orderly, open public process devolve into controversy. She hopes that Archie’s role in the turn of events is the subject of a full investigation.
King’s students, she said, deserved a smooth transition, not an acrimonious controversy.
“Our kids went above and beyond. They took the initiative to meet independently with Mosaica, with Foundations,” Washington said. “They were excited to have the opportunity to hear their voices heard. I’m still emotional about this.”
This story is part of a news-gathering partnership between the Notebook and NewsWorks.