This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission has approved, by a 4-0 vote, a contract with the nonprofit organization Foundations Inc. to recruit and employ two interim assistant superintendents.
Although officials cannot say for certain that it has never happened before – “we do not keep that type of data,” said spokesman Fernando Gallard – it is the first time in memory that District assistant superintendents have been hired indirectly through an outside organization.
The new contract comes at a time when Foundations’ most prominent political ally, State Rep. Dwight Evans, is enjoying his highest public profile in years, emerging as an early supporter of Mayor-elect Jim Kenney and now chairing his transition team.
Announced just days before being put to a vote, the proposal raised eyebrows among those who have seen Evans use his political muscle to win contracts for Foundations before.
“Here we go again. Back to square one,” said Wanda Lassiter, a former staffer at Germantown’s Martin Luther King High, where Evans once secretly but unsuccessfully attempted to install Foundations as charter operator.
But school officials said that this time around Foundations was selected on merit and that no politicking whatsoever was involved in the awarding of the $280,500 contract.
“There’s nothing that is political about this – other than that we have two positions to fill, we need candidates to fill those, and we need temporary candidates … who have the credentials to evaluate principals,” said Superintendent William Hite.
“People call and [ask for] things all the time, but this was not that,” Hite said.
Filling vacancies, avoiding pension problems
The new contract will allow Foundations, based in Mount Laurel, N.J., to recruit retired educators for the two positions, which were left vacant this fall by two internal promotions.
One of the two hires will oversee the region known as “Network 6,” which includes schools in Evans’ legislative district in Northwest Philadelphia. The other will oversee the so-called “autonomy” network of magnet and selective-admissions schools.
Hite and his team will have the final say about who is hired, and the regional superintendents will report directly to him.
However, the new hires will be formally employed by Foundations.
District officials say the unusual arrangement – which they call a “professional services contract” that does not need to bid out competitively – allows them to hire retired administrators without risking the status of the retirees’ pensions.
They say that they reached out to a number of organizations to help fill the slots and that Foundations was best positioned to find candidates.
The new hires will act on “an interim basis,” said Commissioner Feather Houstoun. If the District can find and hire qualified candidates, the Foundations contract will be terminated, she said.
“It’s very hard to get senior administrators to change jobs in the middle of the school year,” she said. “These people will get things rolling, and we will have permanent positions later.”
Robert McGrogan, head of the local principals’ union, said the arrangement – in which the private nonprofit’s employees will supervise and evaluate District employees – doesn’t necessarily present any legal issues.
But he called the decision to outsource senior administrators “a complete embarrassment to the Office of Talent,” one that fits a “dismaying” pattern of increasing reliance on outside contractors.
And he also suspects that the District’s concerns about pensions are the result of past overuse of retired staff to fill teacher and administrator vacancies – a process that may have, in turn, triggered increased scrutiny from the state pension system, PSERS.
District officials, citing advice from counsel, said they did not want to comment on the details of their pension-related concerns.
But McGrogan said that if the District is feeling heat from PSERS, “they should be. … I’ve filed complaints myself.”
McGrogan isn’t necessarily troubled by any political connections Foundations may have. Hiring through locally tied firms raises one set of issues, he said, but hiring through distant firms with no local connections at all raises others.
“It can be spun both ways,” he said.
But the new deal brings back unpleasant memories for some – particularly those who observed Evans’ ill-fated backroom campaign to install Foundations as King’s charter operator in 2010.
“It was really only a matter of time before he worked his way back in. It’s always political,” said Lassiter, who, as a member of King’s School Advisory Council, had a front-row seat to the whole debacle.
The key to the King-Evans-Foundations affair was the legislator’s long relationship with the nonprofit.
A pioneer in education reform, Evans opened one of the city’s first charters with Foundations’ help. At one time the nonprofit managed six District schools in Northwest Philadelphia. It eventually lost those contracts due to subpar academic performance, but Evans has always remained its vocal champion.
Foundations executives, for their part, have supported Evans in kind, making frequent donations to his campaigns. According to the website FollowtheMoney.org, for example, Foundations CEO Rhonda Lauer has given a total of $32,253 to Evans’ campaigns in the last 15 years. The most recent contribution listed is a $2,500 donation in 2012.
So, when King was selected for a Renaissance charter transformation, it was no surprise to see Evans supporting Foundations as the best choice.
And when King parents rejected Foundations’ bid in favor of a different provider’s, Evans did not give up, fighting on the nonprofit’s behalf “like a bulldog on a bone,” as he put it. In a backroom scene described by one participant as being like something out of The Godfather, Evans and Robert Archie, his longtime friend and then-chair of the SRC, persuaded the winning provider, Mosaica Inc., to abandon its bid so that Foundations could run the school.
When news of that secret meeting came to light, Foundations backed out of the King contract, leaving the school in District hands, where it remains.
The full King story was eventually detailed by a City Hall investigation. Neither Evans nor Archie was ever formally censured, although Archie, while denying wrongdoing, resigned his position just days before the mayor’s report was released. Evans defended his actions vociferously throughout, saying he was only looking out for the best interests of his community.
Troubling even without the politics
Evans did not return a call to his office for comment about the current Foundations contract. Foundations executives likewise did not respond to a request for comment.
But to some, it was impossible to avoid making the connection between the latest news and Evans’ longstanding desire to play a larger role with the schools in his district.
As Evans’ political star has risen anew – he kept a relatively low profile in the years after the King affair, but made headlines in 2015 with a key early endorsement of Kenney – Foundations has as well: CEO Lauer now sits on Kenney’s transition team along with Evans.
A spokesperson for Kenney said that the mayor-elect knew nothing of Foundations’ new contract until being asked by a reporter.
But Susan Gobreski of Education Voters PA said she was concerned when she heard about the proposed Foundations contract, citing the “problematic history” involving the nonprofit and Evans.
At the same time, she said, the District faces some genuine barriers to hiring that can be solved, at least temporarily, by working through a nonprofit like Foundations.
The firm has not taken on a task quite like this before. But it has a long history providing professional development services to the District, including at least four contracts since 2011 (two, for teacher and principal training, were worth $90,000 each; a third, to develop “21st Century Learning Centers,” was worth $60,000. A fourth, for “supplemental educational services,” was worth less than $2,000).
If the District’s best choice in its current spot is to hire a private firm, Gobreski said, that should be made clear.
“We need to get clear on the barriers and obstacles, whether those are external issues or internal ones,” she said.
And like McGrogran, she said that even if no politics whatsoever are involved, the Foundations deal still has troubling aspects.
“It’s a real problem if the District has to find consultants to fill essential roles, whether it is teachers or assistant superintendents,” Gobreski said. “It means we are not set up to succeed.”