This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission plans to vote Wednesday on a South Philadelphia charter school deal that stands to benefit not one, but two nonprofits with ties to Chairman Robert Archie.
The scheduled vote comes amid controversy over Archie’s behind-the-scenes conduct in a similar deal involving Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Germantown. There, Archie took part in pivotal private meetings about the future of the school despite having recused himself from public votes because of his law firm’s prior representation of Foundations, Inc., one of the operators vying to manage the school.
At stake Wednesday is the future of Audenried High and Vare Middle schools in South Philadelphia. Universal Companies, with whom Archie also has had longstanding ties, is set to be awarded management rights to both schools. Foundations would likely benefit as a subcontractor.
The estimated value of the Audenried and Vare charters is $45 million over five years.
Archie has deep connections to both Universal and its founder, Kenny Gamble. He was personally involved in his firm’s work on a $74 million housing development in South Philadelphia that was jointly led by Universal and the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Archie and Gamble are longtime friends, and Archie served on the boards of Universal Community Homes and Universal Institute Charter School prior to his appointment to the SRC.
Despite "unanswered questions" about the King controversy that led Mayor Michael Nutter to launch a city-led fact-finding mission on Monday, the vote on Universal is expected to go forward, said District spokesperson Shana Kemp.
"Chairman Archie has recused himself from previous votes when necessary and he will do the same going forward as appropriate,” said Kemp.
Archie has already publicly declared his conflict of interest regarding Universal and said he will be recusing himself from Wednesday’s scheduled vote. With the SRC already down a member following the October resignation of Ambassador David Girard-diCarlo, all three remaining commissioners must vote in favor of the Universal plan in order for it go through.
In September, Universal was awarded a prestigious federal Promise Neighborhood planning grant, which the School District has described as the impetus for the decision to award Audenried and Vare to Universal to run as charters. District leaders made the award unilaterally, bypassing their own community process for vetting providers that was established for other Renaissance charter matches, including King.
According to Universal’s grant application and subsequent documents, Foundations is a partner – and likely an eventual subcontractor – in the initiative, which is intended to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in the Grays Ferry and Point Breeze neighborhoods of South Philadelphia.
Foundations Chief of Staff Emilio Matticoli confirmed that Foundations is “working closely” with Universal on the Promise Neighborhood planning process. But officials from both organizations declined requests for further explanation of the role that Foundations would play at Audenried and Vare, as well as the value of a potential subcontract for Foundations.
The grant application describes Foundations as providing “Education Consultant support,” such as conducting a “school performance/curriculum analysis.” A more recent brochure lists Foundations as the leader of a “Pre-K to 16/Career Development” work group.
On March 16, Archie recused himself from the SRC’s vote on the future of King. But he has since acknowledged taking part in a subsequent closed-door meeting that appears to have played a pivotal role in the decision of Mosaica Education to withdraw from the school less than 24 hours after being approved by the SRC. Mosaica’s withdrawal opened the door for Foundations to be King’s charter operator, but in the wake of further controversy last week, Foundations also withdrew.
Charles Reeves, the grandfather of an Audenried student and a long-time activist in the surrounding Grays Ferry community, said he wants to know if Archie has had similar private involvement in the District’s decision to award Audenried and Vare to Universal.
“What is the connection between this development corporation [Universal] and the [SRC]?” asked Reeves. “I’m concerned about Mr. Archie. [But] when people ask questions, [the District] doesn’t want to answer.”
Asked for comment, District spokesperson Shana Kemp wrote that “School Reform Commission chairman Robert Archie didn’t have any role in the decision to turn [Audenried and Vare] over to Universal.”
Officials had previously indicated that the District’s “Promise Neighborhood Partnership” with Universal was being run directly out of the office of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, a departure from from how the process at other Renaissance Schools has been managed. Kemp, however, described the involvement of the superintendent’s office in the Promise Neighborhood schools as “identical to its involvement in planning for any other Renaissance school.”
District officials were not available Tuesday to explain the discrepancy.
Mayor Nutter took no stance on Wednesday’s scheduled SRC vote on the future of Audenried and Vare.
“The SRC has its rules and procedures and should take up matters when they are ripe for a decision,” said Nutter press secretary Mark McDonald.
This story is part of a news-gathering partnership between the Notebook and NewsWorks.