This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As the city probe into potential impropriety around the School District’s process for converting Martin Luther King High into a charter enters its ninth week, sources have confirmed that Rep. Dwight Evans met privately with the School Reform Commission during an executive session, in possible violation of Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act.
That revelation comes as Mayor Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald says that the inquiry by city Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman is coming to a close – although no date is set for its completion or public release.
The investigation is proceeding in the midst of delicate budget negotiations, with the Mayor and District seeking more money from both City Council and the state legislature to help close a $629 million budget gap and save key services including transportation, full-day kindergarten, smaller classes, and alternative schools.
The probe is especially concerned with the role of SRC Chairman Robert Archie, a longtime friend of Evans’ who recused himself from the formal vote, citing a conflict of interest, but apparently went out of his way to accommodate the legislator behind the scenes.
Executive sessions, which occur in private prior to the SRC’s public meetings, can legally be held only for very specific reasons, such as to discuss labor issues, personnel matters, or ongoing litigation. Any deliberations about the Renaissance match process should have occurred in public, said attorney David Lapp of the Education Law Center.
He said the Sunshine Act "requires that any time a quorum of the SRC meets to discuss agency business with the purpose of making a decision related to that agency business, the meeting must open to the public." The exemptions do not include the situation of matching schools with turnaround providers.
"Meeting as a quorum with Representative Evans to discuss the matching of Renaissance schools with outside operators, a topic that the SRC would ultimately have to vote on, appears to be a violation of the Sunshine Act since it would not meet any of the purposes for an executive session," said Lapp. "It also raises serious questions about what other topics the SRC discusses in their executive sessions.”
But District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser said that SRC as a body can meet in private with anyone who requests it without violating the Sunshine Act as long as they are not making a decision or deliberating. She said that the SRC also met with members of the King School Advisory Council at their request.
Still, the new information adds an additional element to understanding Evans’ behind-the-scenes attempts to persuade the School District to award the charter contract for King, worth an estimated $60 million over five years, to Foundations, Inc., to which he has had long ties.
After the executive session, Evans lobbied publicly for Foundations during the open portion of the March 16 meeting.
However, his lobbying apparently went for naught: The SRC, with Archie abstaining, voted to award the King contract to Mosaica, Inc. After the public session concluded, Archie called a private meeting with Evans, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery, and Mosaica executive John Q. Porter. The next day, Porter withdrew from the King contract, opening the door for Foundations.
Evans later acknowledged that he had continued to lobby on Foundations’ behalf even after the vote. Amid all the ensuring controversy, however, Foundations also stepped aside and King is now slated to become a Promise Academy, or turnaround school directed by the District.
When Nutter ordered Markman’s investigation, he said that he hoped it “would be completed as soon as possible. There’s a relatively small number of people involved.”
More than two months later, there is still no resolution. McDonald, the mayor’s spokesman, said that Nutter has allowed the King investigation to proceed at its own pace. The mayor, he said, did not specifically request that it produce any findings before budget decisions in City Hall and Harrisburg nor seek that the findings be delayed beyond the deadlines.
And while the King controversy is important, especially as it relates to establishing the District’s credibility, the mayor remains focused on the funding issue, McDonald said.
“I’m not saying for one second that [the King contract controversy] is insubstantial, or minor, or anything of the sort. Not at all,” MacDonald said. “I’m just saying that [in the final weeks of June], the budget, and the future of what the school district will look like next year, all hangs in the balance.”
City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on a package of taxes and other revenue bills that would raise $53 million for the District, and the state must complete its budget by June 30.
As for the new revelation that Evans attended the executive session, McDonald said that he has not been briefed on the details of Markman’s investigation.
“l am not privy to her report or who she has interviewed or what she has learned,” he said.
But he said that Markman has now completed most of the interviews she needs and is in the final stages of preparing her report, although he was short on details of who was interviewed and who has refused to cooperate.
Few have been willing to comment on their experience with Markman. Porter and Evans did not respond to requests for comment. District officials are likewise mum.
One person who has discussed her experience with Markman is Conchevia Washington, chair of King’s volunteer School Advisory Council (SAC), whose 8-1 vote in Mosaica’s favor helped it win King’s charter. Washington said she spent two hours with Markman soon after the investigation began, and shared numerous documents from the 11-member SAC’s decision-making process.
Washington said she knew of three other SAC members who were interviewed and that others may have been put off by Markman’s concentration on how the SAC reached its decision when the focus on the probe was meant to be Evans and Archie.
“We’re talking about a very specific situation,” Washington said, referring to the closed-door meeting with Evans, Archie, Porter and Nunery. “Maybe ten people were immediately involved …. I don’t believe that [the investigation] needs to span out into emails that have circulated among teachers, or reaching out to the King alumni [who took part in the public process that led to Mosaica’s selection]. That’s not what this is about. If you’re getting pushback from, let’s say, SAC members about being questioned, I think it’s because people don’t feel that it’s relevant.”
She said that the length and direction of the investigation has left her “a little leery,” especially since subjects are cooperating voluntarily.
“Unless feet are held to the fire, whether it’s under oath or an indictment, people aren’t going to give you what you want to know,” she said.
Phil Goldsmith, a former city managing director and frequent critic of the district, echoed Washington’s concerns. “I don’t have much hope for the investigation. No one’s required to testify. I have the utmost respect for the integrity officer, but she doesn’t have subpoena powers,” Goldsmith said. “We’ll wait and see.”
Goldsmith said that no matter what Markman’s report reveals, it was a mistake for the SRC chair to involve himself privately in a contract matter after publicly declaring a conflict of interest.
“Chairman Archie should know better. He should know what the appearance was going to be,” Goldsmith said. “There’s a relationship that he has with Rep. Evans, who I have high regard for. I think they’re undermining their own efforts. If everyone could just sit on their hands and let the process work the right way, maybe we’d all be better off.”
This story was reported by Bill Hangley, Benjamin Herold, and Dale Mezzacappa.