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Emails show effort to sway SRC on Wister charter conversion

Documents reveal the Philadelphia School Partnership moved to influence SRC members. PSP says its preference for Renaissance charters is no secret.

Bastiaan Slabbers / NewsWorks

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Newly released documents shed new light on behind-the-scenes moves by the Philadelphia School Partnership to revive Mastery Charter School’s bid to run Wister Elementary, after Superintendent William Hite had reversed course and recommended that the school remain under District control.

The documents, mostly emails, were released by the Philadelphia School District after requests from the American Federation of Teachers and the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) under the state’s Right to Know law.

Among them is an email to School Reform Commissioner Bill Green from a senior PSP executive. It indicated that PSP board members planned to call SRC members Sylvia Simms and Feather Houstoun to encourage them to “move for and/or support a resolution to transfer Wister to Mastery.”

PSP sent its email just days after Hite, citing some academic improvement at the school, decided to take Wister off the charter transformation list.

“Several members of the PSP board intend to call Feather and Sylvia,” the PSP executive wrote. “I didn’t even have to ask — they volunteered.”

The email was dated Jan. 15, one week before Simms presented the surprise “walk-on” resolution that restored Mastery’s bid. It is one of several new details that the newly released documents add to the complex story of the campaign for Wister – a controversy that lays bare the polarization in the city about school reform.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said that news of PSP’s interest “only confirmed what we’ve suspected for quite a while.”

He sees the email as evidence that PSP, a multi-million-dollar private fund that supports charters and other “high-performing” schools, is continuing to advocate quietly and aggressively not just for individual charters, but for the kind of privately managed “achievement networks” first presented in the Boston Consulting Group’s 2012 reform proposal.

“They’re just trying to advance that plan,” said Jordan, noting Mastery’s strong existing network in Northwest Philadelphia. “It’s helpful that this information has been exposed. … The public will now begin to look more closely at [the SRC’s] actions.”

Green, however, bristled at the notion that PSP’s email reflected anything unusual or that its plans should have been shared with the public earlier.

“The only people who influenced me are Sylvia and the parents,” said Green, who confirmed that the email came from either PSP executive director Mark Gleason or its managing director Mike Wang (he could not recall which).

Mastery officials denied any knowledge of PSP’s efforts.

“Mastery is not aware of what PSP board members are doing,” said spokesperson Kirk Dorn.

Lisa Haver, of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, said PSP’s email opens questions about the origins of Simms’ resolution restoring Mastery’s bid for Wister.

The story on the record at this point is that the Mastery resolution was Simms’ personal initiative and that it took the other commissioners by surprise when introduced.

The question now, Haver said, is, “What did the commissioners know and when did they know it?”

PSP executive Wang declined to discuss his board members’ efforts in detail, but said in an email that PSP’s support for Renaissance transformations — in which the District turns struggling schools over to charter providers — is “public knowledge and certainly not a secret at all.”

But Wister parent Kenya Nation, a leader of the school’s District supporters, said the latest news strengthens her desire for a full investigation into the tangled, sometimes hidden campaign on Mastery’s behalf.

As parents, said Nation, “we can only go so far.”

Documents reveal details

The documents obtained by the AFT show that at least three PSP board members contacted the SRC before the Wister vote: Evie McNiff, Helen Cunningham, and Janine Yass.

What they discussed and with whom, and what influence they may have had, are not known. District spokesperson Fernando Gallard said only that the District had received “over 1,000 phone calls, emails, petitions and letters” from public officials and community members regarding the Wister situation.

PFT spokesman George Jackson said the teachers’ union made no comparable private calls to SRC members. The union’s advocacy has been “very public,” he said.

Many names in the newly released documents are redacted; the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know law allows redaction of “non-public information.” But they still shed light on a range of events before and after Simms’ January resolution, offering insight into advocates’ pro-Mastery arguments, and commissioners’ responses.

In one exchange, Houstoun received a message from an unknown correspondent marked, “URGENT and special request,” asking her to “meet with a small group of Wister parents who definitely want to see their school … awarded to Mastery.”

Houstoun declined (although that delegation would eventually meet with Green and Simms, as first reported in the Notebook). Later, another correspondent wrote to thank her for voting to support Simms and Mastery.

“It was difficult, and mostly because I totally support Bill [Hite],” Houstoun responded, “and just had a different view of process ‘integrity’ viz. parents.”

Via email, Houstoun clarified later that by “integrity” she meant she felt the process of matching Wister with Mastery should continue uninterrupted, despite Hite’s recommendation to end it.

She had long felt that Mastery was the better choice for Wister, she said, but her vote was primarily inspired by the advocacy of the pro-Mastery Wister community.

“I might have accepted the superintendent’s recommendation that night [Jan. 21] but for powerful expressions of hope and expectations by parents,” she said.

Kenney meets with Simms

The documents also show that Simms’ surprise resolution was followed by an invitation to meet with Mayor Kenney.

A Kenney spokesperson confirmed that Kenney initiated the meeting, held Jan. 27.

“Like much of public, Mayor Kenney was shocked at the SRC’s decision to vote against Dr. Hite’s recommendation for Wister to remain District-run given the recent signs of school improvement,” wrote spokesperson Deana Gamble. “One agenda item was to hear directly from Ms. Simms about the rationale for her actions.”

Gamble said the mayor told Simms he’d received “numerous calls from Wister parents and advocates seeking … to avoid charter conversion.” Kenney asked her “to garner earnest feedback from the entire school community before the final vote in April.”

Simms arrived at that meeting armed with a long list of talking points from an unknown source, the documents show.

“The short version is, Wister is NOT getting any better,” the memo to Simms says. “The last time Hite promised two Renaissance schools that the District could fix them on its own, those two schools have gotten worse.”

In another newly released email, Simms shared with a supporter the rationale for her Wister decision.

“There is much work to do, especially for my babies, the people I represent and who look like me,” Simms wrote. “I just need people to have my back as they will come for me. My actions were not done for fame or opportunity, but for the thousands of children and families who the district has not served for many years.”

Union supporters call for investigation

Houstoun cautioned against reading too much into her exchanges in the documents.

“I wouldn’t overthink this,” she wrote. For commissioners, she said, the Wister vote came down a “judgment call” about whether to back Hite or vote for whatever they considered the best final outcome.

“Each SRC member approaches [his or her] governance responsibility from different personal experience and weighting of issues to be considered,” Houstoun said.

The January vote didn’t award the contract to Mastery, but instead invited the organization to submit a full charter application. That application was submitted and posted online earlier this week; the SRC will make its final decision with a vote in April.

Union supporters and pro-District Wister parents say they want to know more about possible outside influence on the January SRC action.

In a letter, APPS called on SRC Chair Marjorie Neff to “conduct an investigation” into any exchanges between PSP and SRC members, and if necessary to “proceed with the course set out by Dr. Hite.”

PFT’s Jordan, who sees the whole affair as evidence that the SRC should be returned to “local control,” says the union will be submitting more Right to Know requests. However, he hopes Kenney uses his leverage to get some answers.

“Anything the mayor says and does certainly has an impact,” he said. “City Council and the mayor appropriate 45 percent of the funding for the school district.”

Among the unanswered questions is whether Simms’ sister, Quibila Divine, is employed in work that creates a conflict of interest for Simms.

Divine works as a community organizer for a public relations firm with close ties to PSP. She and Simms have both declined to discuss her work or whether it is connected to PSP.

However, PSP has confirmed that it “supports” an organization that Divine frequently represents in public – a charter-friendly parent organizing effort called Educational Opportunities for Families (EOF).

This confirmation followed a Feb. 28 incident in which a PSP staffer, spokesperson Jacob Waters, escorted this reporter, without explanation, from a public EOF meeting in Olney that was hosted by Divine, who requested the removal. This occurred hours after the Notebook published a story exploring whether Divine’s professional interests constituted a potential conflict of interest for her sister.

Wang declined to share details of how PSP supports Divine’s organization, other than to say that it does so “in a variety of ways.”

But the relationship is ongoing, Wang indicated. “We support EOF because we believe there is no other organization in the city that is as effective in elevating the voices of parents with children in all different types of city schools,” he wrote.

District legal counsel has found no conflict involving Divine, but with little on the record about her work, Jordan is not satisfied.

He said the unanswered questions about Divine’s work should either be settled quickly or “there should be no action by the SRC.”

Wister parent Kenya Nation, among those who want the school to stay in the District, said she too wants answers about Divine’s employment and how that may or may not present a conflict for her sister.

“She refused to divulge what she does,” Nation said of Divine. “I don’t understand – if it’s not bad, why can’t you tell us what you do?”

District officials, who are not obligated by law to investigate the accuracy of an official’s disclosures, say they plan to share no additional information.

SRC member Green defended the process from allegations of undue influence. He called PSP just one of “literally hundreds” of voices that weighed in from all sides, denying that it could exert significant influence on the SRC’s Wister decision.

“Who’s more powerful, the PFT or PSP?” Green asked. “PSP makes no policy. … We make our decisions without influence from anybody – except in this case the [pro-Mastery] parents, who didn’t want the rug pulled out from under them.”

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