This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
State officials have dismissed an ethics complaint against School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms that alleged a conflict of interest after they found “insufficient evidence” to justify launching a full-scale investigation.
The complaint, submitted in the spring by Germantown activist and Democratic ward leader Greg Paulmier, alleged that Simms should have recused herself from votes involving the charter transformation of Wister Elementary in Germantown, which is now being managed by Mastery Charter Schools. Critics alleged that Simms’ sister, veteran community advocate Quibila Divine, stood to gain from the Mastery takeover, based on her employment with a public relations firm that once did work for Mastery. However, in a letter sent to Simms on Oct. 24, Robert Caruso of the State Ethics Commission wrote that a preliminary investigation found “insufficient evidence to support a finding of probable cause that the State Ethics Act had been violated.” Simms, who founded the parent advocate group Parent Power with Divine, said she was pleased with the finding. "The ethics commission has confirmed what I have said all along, that there was never a conflict of interest,” Simms said in a statement. “I am glad to have my name cleared and this matter closed and behind me." Paulmier said that he was disappointed, but that he would continue seeking evidence to shed light on Divine’s interests and whether they may have posed a conflict for Simms. He based his complaint on reporting by the Notebook and said he did not produce additional evidence. “I’m not finished,” said Paulmier. “It’s not dead.” Caruso, of the ethics commission, did not return calls for comment. The commission’s letter did not say whether its preliminary investigation uncovered anything beyond the Notebook’s reporting. A surprise vote triggers an allegation
Ethics questions about Simms and the Wister/Mastery vote were first raised at a raucous SRC meeting in January 2016, when Simms introduced a surprise resolution that revived Mastery’s bid for the school. Superintendent William Hite had recommended Wister for charter conversion under the Renaissance schools initiative, then later reversed course and recommended that Wister stay under District control. Simms’ unusual move put a Mastery takeover back on the table. When that evening’s vote was done and Mastery was officially back in consideration, community advocate Pamela Williams rose from the back of the room to shout at Simms, “You should have recused yourself! Your sister has a contract … with Mark Gleason right there!” referring to the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, the city’s most prominent advocate for charter schools. PSP has a variety of connections with Citizen Consulting Group, the Chicago-based public relations firm for which Simms’ sister Divine was working at the time. Among Citizen’s specialties is building community support for charter schools. PSP has hired Citizen in the past, and a former PSP employee, Joseph Butler, is among Citizen’s executives. At the time of Simms’ Wister votes, Divine actively engaged with Mastery-related meetings in the Wister community, including organizing one meeting of her own, which attendees said appeared to have a distinct pro-charter bent. Ethics experts said that if Divine stood to gain professionally from Simms’ vote, Simms should have recused herself. But Divine said that despite being employed by Citizen, she was not professionally engaged at Wister and did not stand to gain from any of her sister’s pro-Wister votes. Reporting by the Notebook confirmed Divine’s engagement with the Wister community at the time. But attempts to either confirm or lay to rest the question at the heart of Williams’ allegation – that Divine was getting paid to advance Mastery’s bid for Wister – were unsuccessful. Despite numerous requests, Divine and her employers would not clarify the source of the funds supporting her work at Citizen. Likewise, officials at PSP declined to confirm or deny whether any PSP funding supported Divine at the time. Instead, Divine and her allies held that she was engaged at Wister on a voluntary basis, out of a sincere desire to improve education for neighborhood students and families. “In our community, we are the solution and not the problem,” Divine said in an impassioned speech at an SRC meeting in February. District Counsel Michael A. Davis also dismissed any ethics concerns, based on the fact that Divine did not work for Citizen at the time it was hired by Mastery. Likewise, Mastery disavowed any connection with Citizen or Divine. Ethics officials did not report whether their preliminary investigation found additional evidence beyond what Paulmier submitted. And although Paulmier says he’ll continue to work to uncover the story behind the Wister votes, ethics officials have confirmed that even if some violation is revealed, the SRC’s Wister votes will stand and the school will remain under Mastery’s control. Divine remains active in Philadelphia school advocacy, most visibly by working with a PSP-supported community engagement group called Educational Opportunities for Families. Simms herself will step down from the SRC in January, when her term expires. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she plans to remain active in public school issues and that she was “surprised” that anyone would level ethics charges against her. "There’s so much other work we can be doing,” she said. “People should be spending their time making their schools better.”