Nutter orders probe of King charter school flap

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Nutter: "I am particularly concerned about the many unanswered questions surrounding the withdrawal of Mosaica Turnaround Partners from the charter selection process." (Staff File Photo)

Mayor Nutter has launched a city investigation into the withdrawal of an Atlanta charter school company from operating Martin Luther King High School, amid allegations of conflict of interest and political wrangling involving School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and State Rep. Dwight Evans.

Nutter said Monday that he had directed Joan Markman, the city's chief integrity officer, to conduct a series of fact-finding interviews and report the results to him as soon as possible.

The development follows a week of disclosures about a closed-door meeting involving Archie, Evans, and one charter operator who later backed out of King, and the subsequent departure of a second charter operator. It also follows requests by some King parents for a state investigation.

"I am particularly concerned about the many unanswered questions surrounding the withdrawal of Mosaica Turnaround Partners Inc. from the charter-selection process. . . ." Nutter said in a letter sent to Archie on Monday.

Nutter told reporters he had discussed the King situation with Archie by phone Sunday, but he said questions remained about Mosaica's decision. The company sent a letter withdrawing from King a day after a company official met with Archie and Evans on March 16, shortly after the SRC voted, 3-0, to have Mosaica run the high school in East Germantown.

Archie had abstained from the vote because the law firm where he is a partner, Duane Morris L.L.P., previously represented Foundations Inc. The New Jersey nonprofit organization had vied to run King and has close ties to Evans.

Reached by phone Monday afternoon, Archie said he welcomed the mayor's inquiry and would cooperate.

"Don't you think we need to get to the bottom of it?" he said. "Don't you think we should do an investigation to get the facts so there can be an accurate reporting of what transpired, if anything?"

The media, Archie said, have been relying on "hearsay" from members of the advisory committee at King about the meeting he attended with Evans, John Q. Porter of Mosaica, and Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery.

Nutter said Evans has agreed to participate in Markman's interviews, as have Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman and her executive team.

In an interview last week, Archie said neither he nor Evans pressured Mosaica to back out. He said he called the meeting to try to get Evans and Porter to work together at King.

Archie said he received Nutter's letter Monday morning.

"He has my full support," Archie said of Nutter's inquiry.

The commission's selection of Mosaica ratified the recommendation of a King advisory committee of parents, staff, students, and community members that earlier voted, 8-1, in favor of Mosaica over Foundations, which has worked at the school for seven years.

Shortly after the SRC vote, Archie directed Nunery to ask Porter, president of Mosaica's turnaround division, to meet with him and Evans.

Porter has said that before that meeting, Mosaica planned to run King. The next day, his company withdrew from King but said it would continue with plans to operate Birney School, an elementary school in Logan.

Porter has declined to comment on what was said during the meeting other than that Evans said King was a critical component of his long-range education plans for the northwest part of the city.

"It was clear to me that there was a master plan for that area for a number of years," Porter has said, "and we didn't want to stand in the way of the representative's plan."

Nunery was present at the meeting but did not speak, district officials said.

District spokeswoman Jamilah Fraser said Saturday that Porter had said that " 'Dr. Nunery appeared as shocked as I was during the course of the discussion. It was apparent that he was unaware that this meeting was going to take place prior to it occurring.' Dr. Nunery has worked to maintain the integrity of this process and will continue to do so moving forward."

Evans, who attended the March 16 SRC meeting, told commissioners he wanted Foundations to continue to work with King and said he was disappointed that the King advisory committee favored Mosaica.

The Democrat, whose district is next to King, expressed dismay over the SRC vote.

"I felt like that in the direction we were moving, we were making more than progress," Evans told a reporter after the five-hour SRC meeting. "Obviously, I agree to disagree with what has happened."

He then excused himself and joined Archie, who was leaving the auditorium with the other commissioners.

A short time later, Porter was approached by Nunery, who asked him to attend "an impromptu" meeting.

Nutter said Monday he was not sure what Markman would find in her review of the meeting.

Nutter and Evans were rivals in the five-way mayoral primary in 2007, but Evans is publicly backing Nutter's reelection.

On Nov. 24, 2010, Evans used his state representative campaign PAC to donate the maximum amount, $10,600, to Nutter's campaign.

In his letter to Archie, Nutter said he understood that the SRC chairman would encourage other commission members and representatives from Mosaica and Foundations to cooperate with interviews.

Nunery, who was reached by phone, declined comment.

Commission member Johnny Irizarry also declined to comment. Irizarry said he expected to get a briefing from district staff about the situation this week.

Commission member Denise McGregor Armbrister said through a School District spokeswoman that she supported the fact-finding inquiry called for by the mayor and would cooperate. Commission member Joseph Dworetzky could not be reached.

Since the state takeover of the district in December 2001, the five-member SRC has overseen the district. The governor appoints three members, the mayor two.

The fifth SRC seat has been vacant since David F. Girard-diCarlo resigned in February. Gov. Corbett has not named a replacement.

Nutter appointed Archie to the commission in 2009, and Gov. Ed Rendell made him chairman.

The mayor said that during their Easter talk, he and Archie had not discussed the possibility of Archie's leaving the commission.

When Nutter was asked Monday if he would remove Archie if Markman's inquiry uncovered problems, he said, "I'm not going to prejudge, presume, or make any speculation on what might come out of the fact-finding."

Nutter said he was hopeful the interviews could be completed quickly so that the city and the School District could focus on larger pressing issues, including the district's projected $629 million deficit in the next fiscal year.

"I would hope that this would be completed as soon as possible," he said. "There's a relatively small number of people involved."

With Mosaica out of the picture, district officials told the King advisory committee that Foundations would convert the high school into a charter in the fall. But late last week, officials from Foundations announced that the nonprofit group was withdrawing, too.

Citing a climate of "unrelenting hostility," Rhonda H. Lauer, Foundations' chief executive officer, sent a letter to Archie and Ackerman saying her organization was no longer interested in participating in the district's Renaissance school-reform plan.

Foundations now has a contract to receive up to $600,000 from the district to provide programs and student services at King. That will end June 30.

The SRC is scheduled to discuss King's future at its voting session Wednesday. District officials have said they expect the district will operate the school in 2011-12.


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

Inquirer staff writer Marcia Gelbart contributed to this article.