This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission voted Wednesday to allow Universal Companies to operate Audenried High and Vare Middle schools as charter schools beginning next year.
The vote was 3-0, with SRC Chairman Robert Archie abstaining. Because of his longstanding ties to Universal, Archie recused himself from the vote – but not before publicly championing the organization.
“They have a track record of basically turning around neighborhoods and using the schools as a magnet for it,” Archie said, jumping in to respond to a question directed from a fellow commissioner to Universal Executive Vice President Shahied Dawan.
“You’re being very modest by not telling us all this, and I thought I’d just lead you through that scenario if you want to,” Archie told Dawan.
A murmur rose up in the crowded room as Archie continued to tout Universal’s accomplishments.
Archie has represented Universal in his capacity as partner in the Duane Morris law firm. He is also close friends with Universal founder Kenny Gamble and served on the boards of Universal Community Homes and Universal Institute Charter School.
Archie’s involvement in behind-the-scenes discussions of the future of Martin Luther King High prompted a mayoral fact-finding inquiry and calls for a state investigation earlier this week. King is another Renaissance school where he had ties to one of the operators vying for the multimillion-dollar charter.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Archie disputed the notion that he had advocated on behalf of Universal.
“I was merely refreshing [Dawan’s] recollection as to what Universal had done when I sat on his board,” Archie said.
The chairman’s public comments regarding Universal came during a sometimes testy hour-long presentation and exchange in which commissioners Joseph Dworetzky and Johnny Irizarry asked probing questions about the plan for Audenried and Vare.
Dworetzky in particular expressed concern about whether Universal would be able to deliver on everything it has pledged to do should it not be awarded a federal Promise Neighborhood implementation grant later this year.
Last September, Universal was the recipient of a related planning grant, which District officials have described as the impetus for creating a new “Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School” turnaround model tailored to Universal’s neighborhood redevelopment strategy.
“We are not absolutely depending on obtaining one of the [federal] grant awards to make sure that we’re going to be successful in delivering on this initiative,” Dawan said.
Dworetzky later proposed an amendment to the SRC resolutions obligating the organization to formally commit to providing all promised services with or without the hoped-for federal money. The amendment was approved.
A few new details about what the plan will mean for Audenried and Vare also emerged during the presentation.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Penny Nixon said that Audenried will become a “Center of Excellence” based on its career and technical education program in diesel technology. A District spokesperson later said that the new center will be available to students in Audenried’s catchment, and that “if additional seats remain, students from other areas may apply to attend.”
Both schools will also have on-site Parent Universities beginning next year.
As at other recent SRC meetings, the Promise Neighborhood Partnership plan generated a wide range of emotional testimony.
The chairpersons of both School Advisory Councils (SACs) at Universal’s current Renaissance charters, Bluford and Daroff elementary schools, joined the Universal-District presentation to give impromptu testimonials.
“What Universal has done is commendable,” said Pamela K. Williams, the chair of the Universal-Daroff SAC. “Give them a chance at Audenried and let’s see what they can do.”
Audenried English teacher Hope Moffett, an outspoken critic of the plan who became the face of opposition when the District moved to fire her in March, also testified.
”Why, when asked if the District would wait a year to see the first ever Audenried PSSA results, would the District claim that a $500,000 planning grant with no chance of full funding was their reason for awarding a non-competitive contract to a politically connected educational provider?” asked Moffett.
After the vote, Dawan expressed satisfaction with the outcome and said Universal has “no concern” about meeting the obligations that will be added to the charter agreement as the result of Dworetzky’s amendment.
”We can’t wait to get started,” he said.