Karen Heller: Maneuvering over King school deals out students

Managing a large urban school district may be the hardest job going. These are people's children, and the stakes are enormous. The quality of their education, or lack thereof, becomes the groundwork for the city's future. Even as enrollment dwindles, the Philadelphia School District's problems appear to mutate daily.

The latest controversy involves Martin Luther King High School in East Germantown. King's School Advisory Committee (SAC) deliberated weeks before overwhelmingly approving the Atlanta-based Mosaica Turnaround Partners Inc. to operate the institution as a charter.

The School Reform Commission approved the match March 16 for what ultimately would be a five-year contract worth at least $50 million. John Q. Porter, chief of Mosaica's turnaround division, was jubilant.

That night in a closed-door meeting, Porter met with School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery, and, for some reason, State Rep. Dwight Evans, even though the school is outside the legislative boundaries of the kingdom of Dwightland, and Evans holds no educational post.

The next day, Mosaica pulled out. The SRC announced that Foundations Inc., an educational services provider based in Moorestown with close ties to Evans, would run the school as a charter. This decision was made even though King's SAC had chosen Mosaica over Foundations, which has provided services to the school for seven years.

Archie had recused himself from the SRC's 3-0 vote, as he has several times during his two-year tenure to avoid potential conflicts. His law firm, Duane Morris, has represented Foundations.

Now, Foundations has also pulled out, sensing hostility at the school. The district will continue to operate King for at least another year, and Mayor Nutter has asked the city's chief integrity officer to investigate what precisely happened March 16.

How did Mosaica go from being the clear winner to leaving King overnight?

The history sounds complicated, but the issues are not. Politics and business were strongly at work. That was evident the next week when King's unhappy committee met with district officials, Archie, and Evans. Again, what was Evans doing there? Politics is "an integral part" of the education process, Archie said, according to an observer taking notes, education involves politics "and you can't ignore that."

Evans, former Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, spoke of the $20 million he has brought to Stenton Avenue, where King is located. According to the observer, Evans said he and Foundations "needed a high school" to create "synergy." Evans remarked on his long history of steering funds to the city's northwest: "I have the ability to bring the money. Mosaica can't bring the money." Evans noted the group's outsider status. Mosaica "doesn't live in the city."

Philadelphia is the biggest small town in America, home to a lot of residents, only a few of whom wield true power.

Foundations' officials have given regularly and generously to Evans, more than 150 contributions totaling almost $80,000 since 2000, according to an Inquirer analysis. So, too, has Archie - $27,000 to Evans' campaigns from 2000 to 2008.

Charters present an opportunity for change and renewal. They also provide an opportunity for serious financial contracts, which is where politics comes into play.

Philadelphia has some excellent programs - Mastery, KIPP, Independence, Russell Byers - but there has been plenty of opportunity for malfeasance.

Since September 1997, when the first schools opened, 72 charters are in operation. Eighteen are currently under federal investigation, a fourth of all charters. It's important to note that Foundations is not involved in the operation of any of them.

Many of the problems giving rise to such scrutiny weren't uncovered by the district, where only a handful of employees oversee the schools' operations, but by The Inquirer's education reporter Martha Woodall and by City Controller Alan Butkovitz.

Remember, though school officials and politicians may not, that education is supposed to be about the children.

Martin Luther King is not among the district's best schools, nor is it among the worst. Still, no one would hold up its record as a point of pride. The 2010 graduation rate was 32 percent. Only one in five of the 1,100 students can read or do math at grade level. Two-thirds of the pupils are chronically truant.

Though King's SAC did due diligence on approving Mosaica, the school will now have to wait at least another year for change. Little about what happened sounds right.

Last summer, when Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's compensation came under scrutiny, Archie published a letter in this paper: "Our job at the SRC is to hold Ackerman accountable. The public should hold us accountable."

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com. Read her blog posts on Blinq and her work at www.philly.com/KarenHeller. Follow her at Twitter @kheller.

Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this column.