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Ackerman speaks about ‘secret’ meeting on King charter

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A top deputy of Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman attended a pivotal, closed-door meeting on the future of Martin Luther King Jr. High School last month, and was "shocked" by what he witnessed, Ackerman now acknowledges.

For weeks, Ackerman has denied having detailed knowledge about what happened at the private session. Besides Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery, the participants were Robert Archie, chair of the School Reform Commission, state Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), and an executive of the company that the SRC had just picked to run King as a charter.

This March 16 meeting has led to calls for an investigation of a potential conflict of interest on Archie’s part. Ackerman now says she told the commissioners of her “concern,” but said it was not her job to hold them accountable “for their public responsibilities.”

In a statement this weekend, she confirmed that Nunery sat silently as Evans and Archie expressed their concerns to John Q. Porter of Mosaica Education about the SRC’s decision to award Mosaica a five-year charter deal, potentially worth $60 million, to run the high school in Germantown.

Evans wanted Foundations Inc., a New Jersey-based education nonprofit with which he has long ties, to stay involved at King. Evans has been instrumental in setting up Foundations to play a role in running the school for the last eight years.

The day after the March 16 meeting, Porter announced Mosaica was withdrawing its bid.

Archie, an attorney, has recused himself from public votes on the King charter, citing a conflict of interest because the law firm where he is a partner, Duane Morris, has represented Foundations.

"It is not within Dr. Ackerman’s purview to hold any Commissioner accountable for their public responsibilities, only to express concern and offer her best recommendations," District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser wrote today.

The statement said that Nunery, Ackerman’s second-in-command, told her about the March 16 meeting later that night, but “did not share the explicit details about this meeting, that night or to this day, only that he was concerned.”

Nunery could not be reached for comment.

Ackerman’s most recent account is at odds with what she has previously said she knew about the March 16 meeting. Two days after it occurred, she disavowed through Fraser any knowledge of a private discussion involving Evans and others following the SRC vote. She said that Mosaica’s withdrawal the next day “shocked" her.

On Saturday, Ackerman also said she told all four SRC members that she was concerned about how the King saga has unfolded.

She "expressed her deep concern, on multiple occasions, about this matter to Chairman Archie and the Commissioners," Fraser said. Archie was appointed as one of the city representatives on the joint city-state panel by Mayor Michael Nutter in 2009. Nutter has declined comment so far on the King situation, saying he needs first to discuss it with Archie.

NewsWorks and The Public School Notebook have contacted the other three commissioners for comment. No response has been received as of now.

About-face on turnaround

Of the March 16 meeting itself, Archie has said he was there in his official capacity to mediate between Evans and Mosaica. Evans has said he argued on behalf of his own plans, which include Foundations, but did not unduly pressure Porter. Porter has not commented on the substance of the meeting.

A District-sanctioned, volunteer parent group charged with representing King during its transition to charter status has called for a full investigation of Archie’s role. That group had voted for Mosaica over Foundations as its choice to lead a turnaround effort at King. Ackerman had supported the King School Advisory Council’s recommendation to go with Mosaica.

Archie said he called the secret March 16 meeting just hours after the SRC voted to award King’s charter to Mosaica. Archie has said he arranged the meeting to help Mosaica collaborate with Evans, Archie’s longtime friend and a big Foundations supporter. Many households in Evans’ 203rd House District send students to King.

In pulling out of the King situation, Mosaica’s Porter said that he did not want to interfere with Evans’ plans. That withdrawal seemed to leave Foundations as the only suitor for the King charter. But this week Foundations also withdrew, citing hostility from "a vocal minority" in the King community.

‘Shock,’ but little detail

Through a spokesperson, Ackerman said Friday evening that Nunery arrived at the March 16 meeting intending to "facilitate a discussion" between Mosaica and Evans. Instead, he ended up watching the proceedings in silence, "shocked" by what he was witnessing. Nunery "offered no opinion or information" during the session, the statement said.

The statement says nothing specific about the meeting’s contents, and offers no firsthand account of its proceedings. Instead it quotes Porter as saying, "Dr. Nunery appeared as shocked as I was during the course of the discussion. It was apparent that he was unaware that this meeting was going to take place prior to it occurring."

Archie has declined to respond to requests for detailed comment on the meeting.

Ackerman has previously said she knew no details of what occurred on the evening of March 16, or what precisely persuaded Mosaica to withdraw.

Immediately after Mosaica withdrew, Fraser said, "We were shocked."

On March 22, Ackerman herself said, "I knew there was a problem, I don’t know all of the details." She called Mosaica’s withdrawal "tragic" but said she would not stand in the way if the SRC were to approve a resolution allowing Foundations to replace Mosaica.

Ackerman said at the time that she sympathized with parents and students at King who’d supported Mosaica. "I felt for them. I really did," she said.

But she also said that the decision to leave was Mosaica’s.

"They’ve made a decision," said Ackerman of Mosaica at the time, "so what I’m trying to do is to get everybody to move forward … I just know that I stuck by my recommendation through to the end."

District officials say that with King’s only two candidates now withdrawn, the 1,000-student school in Germantown will now remain under direct District control for the next year. They plan to reopen the selection process next year in hopes of turning King into a charter school by 2012-13.

This story is the product of a news-gathering partnership between NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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