This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Bill Hangley, Jr. for
Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
Arlene Ackerman, Philadelphia’s recently departed superintendent of schools, claims she was threatened last spring with disclosure of embarrassing information about her personal finances if she did not help a politically connected bidder, Foundations Inc., land the charter contract for Martin Luther King Jr. High School.
“I was told by someone that if I didn’t get my mind right about this Foundations situation, that something would be leaked about my finances,” Ackerman said in an interview this week.
Ackerman said that conversation took place just days before Fox29 News reported that she owed $20,000 in back taxes. The Fox report aired on April 12, during the heat of a behind-the-scenes battle for King’s charter, a five-year contract worth an estimated $12 million a year.
Ackerman said she recounted her entire story to the investigator charged by Mayor Michael Nutter with probing the King controversy, Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman. She said she also told Markman about a number of other ways she said she felt pressured to support Foundations, a New Jersey-based nonprofit with ties to both state Rep. Dwight Evans and School Reform Commission Chair Robert Archie.
Speaking by phone from New Mexico, where she was visiting family, the former superintendent declined to identify the person whom she said issued the warning about possible financial disclosures. She said Markman knows the name and she would prefer that the mayor release the information himself “since there were other people that were interviewed and can corroborate what I said.”
Ackerman called on Nutter to release the results of his investigation, launched nearly five months ago. “I think it’s tragic, and unconscionable, that the story hasn’t been told,” she said.
She said the mayor himself had never lobbied her on behalf of Foundations.
Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Nutter, declined to comment on Ackerman’s statements or anything else related to the report.
Nutter announced his probe last April, after a Notebook/NewsWorks joint investigation revealed that Archie organized and took part in a closed-door meeting at which Evans successfully convinced Mosaica Education of Atlanta to turn down the King contract so that Foundations could have it.
Foundations has been Evans’ partner for decades in a variety of education projects, and over the years its executives have given him thousands in campaign donations. Archie and Evans are longtime friends.
Archie called the closed-door meeting on March 16, just hours after the SRC voted to award Mosaica the five-year charter to manage King High School. The company had been the choice of an advisory panel of King parents and community members and was endorsed by Ackerman.
The SRC chairman, who has said he was acting in his official capacity, called the meeting despite an apparent conflict of interest; his law firm, Duane Morris, has represented Foundations, and he routinely recused himself from public SRC votes involving the nonprofit.
Along with Evans and Archie, Leroy Nunery, then Ackerman’s deputy, also attended. Nunery is now the acting schools superintendent.
Ackerman said she told Markman details of two other, previously unreported private meetings she attended with Evans, one of which included Archie. She also said she gave Markman the name of “someone close to Dwight Evans” who told her that the King question represented a “career decision” for her, and that failing to support Foundations over Mosaica would jeopardize her professional future in Philadelphia.
“I heard that several times,” said Ackerman.
While Ackerman did not say she was certain that Fox29’s tax story was connected to the threat she allegedly received, she said the timing raised questions for her.
She also said she has wondered if the fact that her tax attorney was with Duane Morris LLP, where Archie is a partner, had anything to do with the story leaking.
A spokesperson for Duane Morris did not respond to a request for comment.
Fernando Gallard, a School District spokesperson, said that Archie would not respond to Ackerman’s statements or answer questions about the source of the Fox29 tax story. Gallard said the District’s general counsel had determined that “it is inappropriate to comment at this time on any aspect of … Markman’s review.”
Evans did not respond to requests for comment.
Ackerman, who has said that the King controversy marked the beginning of the end of her tenure in Philadelphia, said she hopes the mayor releases the results of his King probe soon.
“I think the public needs to know exactly what happened, so that this won’t happen again,” said Ackerman, who stepped down from her position in August after months of controversy.
Long wait for answers
When he announced his probe, Nutter, who appointed Archie to the SRC, called the King controversy an “important issue” and promised results “as soon as possible.”
Since then, Nutter’s staff have announced no timeline for the King report’s release and have provided no details on what it will contain, or why it has taken so long to complete.
Ackerman is not the only one calling for answers about King.
Conchevia Washington, parent of a King student and chair of its School Advisory Council, said she is anxious to see the mayor’s findings. She said she recently asked Markman about the report’s status. “She informed me that the mayor has had the report since the summer,” said Washington, who was among Markman’s first interviewees. “Why it has not been released … I just don’t know.”
Washington said that among the things she’d like to know is whether the mayor himself played a role at any time. “Is there something that his office could be trying to hide?” she asked.
The Committee of Seventy, an ethics watchdog group, has also called on the mayor to release his findings. “It seems like the King report should have been out a long time ago,” said Seventy’s president, Zack Stalberg. “It did not seem wildly complicated, and I cannot understand why it would take so long for them to release the results.”
Ackerman said the mayor never expressed to her any opinion about who should get the King contract. Asked if Archie or anyone else ever gave her reason to believe that Nutter knew about the controversy or had an opinion, she responded, “No comment.”
The mayor has said that Evans never lobbied him personally on the matter.
One result of the controversy is clear: there are no immediate plans to turn King into a charter school. Foundations withdrew from consideration for the King contract soon after Archie’s role was revealed. King, a 1,000-student neighborhood high school in Germantown with a long history of lagging academic achievement, stayed under District control as a Promise Academy, which will bring it some additional attention and resources, as well as a largely new teaching staff.
But many unanswered questions remain, starting with the details of Archie’s pivotal March 16 closed-door meeting. It has never been revealed what exactly was said to convince Mosaica’s John Porter to suddenly reverse himself and give up the lucrative contract,
Porter has said he voluntarily gave up the King contract so as not to interfere with Evans’ plans, but he has declined to speak in detail. Evans has said that he lobbied hard for Foundations because he considers them trusted, effective partners. Archie has explained his role by saying said he wanted to facilitate dialogue among the various parties. Nunery has never spoken on the record about his role, although Ackerman has said that Nunery was “shocked” by what he saw in the meeting.
As for why Evans, Archie, and others were so anxious to see Foundations win the King contract, Ackerman said she knows only that Evans considered a Foundations-run King as central to his plans for a coordinated network of neighborhood services in Northwest Philadelphia. Foundations had already been playing a management role at King since 2003.
“I was told that it was important to a larger plan for that community,” Ackerman said. “That was as much as I was ever told.”
Stalberg said that Nutter can help answer questions by releasing the results of his King probe. “The longer we have to wait for the report, the more doubts people are going to have, and the less people are going to trust the final result,” Stalberg said.
Ackerman said she hopes the public hears from Nutter soon. “The report is in his hands – all of us have cooperated. Not only me, but dozens of people who were involved in this situation,” she said. “We gave hours and hours of our time. And I think it would be respectful to all of us, but more importantly to the public, to have this report released, and put it to bed once and for all.”
Look for more to come on the controversy at King High School in the upcoming October 2011 edition of the Notebook, with a focus on school turnarounds – out next week. To receive a copy by first-class mail, become a member.