This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Bill Hangley, Jr.
With the shadow of dozens of possible school closures looming in the background, a group of public school advocates has formally filed an ethics complaint challenging the legitimacy of the dramatic reform plan developed for the School District of Philadelphia by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the William Penn Foundation.
The complaint was filed Wednesday with the Philadelphia Board of Ethics by members of Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Home and School Council, and the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP.
The group alleges that because the William Penn Foundation contracted privately with BCG to develop a reform plan for the District, the two private organizations were effectively lobbying the District, and should have formally registered with the city as a principal and lobbyist, respectively.
By not doing so, BCG and William Penn were able to skirt disclosure requirements that would have required them to share numerous details about BCG’s work, including the identities of the donors who paid for it, the complaint’s supporters said.
“That’s one of the very things that the lobbying law was enacted to overcome – so that you would know who was trying to influence policy,” said Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, whose analysis of the BCG/William Penn arrangement prompted the complaint.
“We believe that under the Philadelphia [lobbying] ordinance, they were required to register and file all the disclosure forms that go with being a lobbyist.”
The BCG plan, unveiled last spring, was funded in part by private donations solicited by William Penn. It called for the expansion of charter schools, the transformation of the District into a group of semi-independent “achievement networks” managed largely by outside contractors, and the closure of as many as 60 traditional public schools.
The District hasn’t formally embraced all elements of the BCG proposal. Superintendent William Hite is developing his own long-term plans. District officials are believed to be on the verge of releasing a lengthy list of school-closure candidates.
“In less than 10 days, some 50 to 60 schools will be announced to be closed, and we don’t know what the real agenda was, how these schools came to be on this target list, and whose interests will be served,” said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia NAACP.
“We want total transparency, and we believe that public hearings before the ethics board would give the public a true picture of the big money involved in changing, restructuring and … destroying public education as we’ve come to know it.”
If the Board of Ethics determines that the complaint has merit, public hearings will follow.
“The [board’s] executive director has to review it to see if it complies with requirements, [such as] whether or not it states a potential violation of a law that we have jurisdiction over. If it does, we accept the complaint,” said Michael Cooke, the board’s director of enforcement.
“If it doesn’t, we reject it.”
Cooke said he couldn’t provide any timetable for how quickly the complaint would be reviewed.
District officials have denied any improper behavior. They insist that they weren’t lobbied by BCG, but instead were in charge of the process every step of the way, despite not being formal parties to the BCG-William Penn contract.
“The District was the only entity involved in defining the scope of work done under the contract, and the District is and will continue to be the only entity that decides which recommendations and best practices identified by BCG will be implemented in our schools,” said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard in a statement.
Officials at William Penn and BCG have also said that they did nothing wrong and that the complaint has no merit.
But Churchill said that if William Penn wanted to formally put the District in charge, it could have easily done so, instead of striking a private deal with BCG.
“The William Penn Foundation could have given a grant to the School District, so the School District could go hire consultants [like BCG]. They didn’t do that,” Churchill said.
“The price of keeping that kind of control and not giving it to the District is that you are supporting lobbying. You’re trying to get your views put into the mix. … You’ve converted yourself from making grants to the School District as a philanthropist, to supporting a lobbying process.”
Parents United’s Helen Gym echoed the point. “We wouldn’t be here if there was a contract between the School District of Philadelphia and the Boston Consulting Group,” she said.
“We’re here because they decided to do something dramatically different, to ensure that the public would not have much insight into what was going on.”
The complaint notes that in early 2012, the District did, in fact, contract directly with BCG for the first phase of planning, but adds that “for all BCG work beyond Phase I, the William Penn Foundation was in control and responsible for payments … the District did not pay for nor control the work of BCG for Phase II or Phase III.”
Parents United members acknowledged that part of their goal with the complaint is to lay the groundwork for possible opposition to a school-closure process that could well be unlike anything Philadelphia has ever seen, in terms of scope and speed.
“The SRC has passed a new rule that they can expedite closing of schools faster than any time before,” said Parents United’s Gerald Wright.
“When that [closure] list is introduced, they can close those schools very quickly, without any public input. … We’re behind the eight ball.”
However, Churchill said that even if the Board of Ethics finds that the complaint has merit and holds hearings on the matter, that won’t necessarily affect the District’s ability to move ahead with its plans.
“I don’t believe [the Board of Ethics] have any power over the substantive processes the District is going through,” he said.
Gym said that if nothing else, the complaint could serve as a wake-up call that discourages the District from striking similar deals in the future.
“We have to have an independent agency take a look at this in a very determined way and make a decision about whether our school district is going to be operated by and for private interests over public,” she said.
“Our best-case scenario is that a message is sent. … We need the ethics board to make that call for us right now.”
Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation is a major funder of the Notebook. Helen Gym is a Notebook leadership board member, but does not speak for or represent the Notebook on this issue.