As lawmaker calls for probe, CEO of charters defends pay

A Pennsylvania state legislator yesterday called for the state to investigate the $331,000 in salaries paid to D. June Hairston Brown to run two public charter schools in Philadelphia.

Rep. Michael McGeehan, a Northeast Philadelphia Democrat, also said that recent disclosures of high salaries paid to some charter executives and allegations of financial mismanagement at Philadelphia Academy Charter School make this a "good time" for the state "to reexamine charter schools. Some of them may need to be seriously reviewed."

20080524_inq_rrxcharter24z-a
D. June Hairston Brown is paid for work at 5 schools.

McGeehan called for a state investigation in a letter Thursday to the state's education secretary after learning that the state's Public School Employees Retirement System is investigating Laboratory Charter and Ad Prima because state records show that Brown and three other staffers hold full-time jobs at both schools.

Brown receives more than $500,000 in salary from four charters and a private school.

Yesterday, Brown again defended the money she receives saying she and three other school employees divide their time between the schools. "I work hard," said Brown. "I really work hard and so do our teachers."

She added: "I do the job of four or five different people, and not a soul - not even my parents - would dispute that."

She was paid $331,701 as chief executive at the two charter schools for 2006-07 - $187,978 from Laboratory in Northern Liberties and $143,723 from Ad Prima, state records show. She opened a third city charter - Planet Abacus - in the fall which has not yet filed its annual report with the state or district.

She also worked five hours a week as a consultant to the Agora Cyber Charter School in Tredyffrin, which she founded in 2006, according to federal tax records.

Brown was also paid $177,000 in 2005-06 as executive director of Main Line Academy, a small, private special-education school in Bala Cynwyd, federal tax records show.

The state's 1997 charter school law does not say anything about salaries of CEOs or any other charter employee. As a result, neither the state nor the Philadelphia School Reform Commission have direct control over city charter salaries. That responsibility is left to the boards of individual charter schools.

Sandra Dungee Glenn, chairwoman of the reform commission, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

But Cecilia E. Cummings, the district's senior vice president for communications and community relations, said: "Charters were a creation of the state, and are intended to have a level of independence. It would be appropriate for the state to review this."

Sheila Ballen, department of education spokeswoman, noted that the law gives the education department only a limited charter role.

"When the charter law was written there was not a whole lot of guidance and there was a hands-off approach," she said. "And when you have a hands-off approach, things like this can happen. The department is always willing to talk to people about revisiting the charter-school law."

Ballen said Education Secretary Gerald L. Zahorchak is away, and she did not know if he had received McGeehan's letter.

In his letter, McGeehan wrote, "In light of this information being brought to the fore, I feel compelled on behalf of my constituency to request the Pa. Department of Education to conduct a formal investigation into this matter.

"The citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania deserve nothing less than a full accounting of their hard-earned taxpayer dollars and some level of transparency into this intriguing web of charter schools."

Planet Abacus in Tacony is in McGeehan's district.

In an interview, McGeehan disputed Brown's defense of her compensation.

He said it was incomprehensible that Brown could effectively carry out the responsibilities of her many jobs.

"This woman has to have eight arms to do the kind of things that are reported," McGeehan said in an interview yesterday. "What she is doing is juggling all these - what are essentially full-time jobs."

Brown declined to comment on McGeehan's request for an investigation other than to say she feared it would further upset parents and staff who are worried that the controversy will harm their schools.

As The Inquirer reported Thursday, a pension-system auditor sent a letter to the school district earlier this month seeking to document the duties and daily work schedules for Brown and three other employees beginning with the 2004-05 school year. Brown disputed the assertion that the auditor contacted the district because he had not received a response from Brown.

Brown said her business office's first contact from the auditor was an e-mail received Wednesday. Brown said that under the state retirement regulations, any school employee who works more than 25 hours is considered full-time.

She said it was a shame that Laboratory Charter, which has some of the state's highest test scores, would be singled out for scrutiny.

"Anyone who finds something negative or dishonest about us has to make it up," she said. "We work night and day for these kids."


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or at martha.woodall@phillynews.com.