Ronnie Polaneczky: A fed probe and a suddenly shy Veronica Joyner
VERONICA JOYNER has never been shy with the media.
For two-plus decades, as founder of Parents United for Better Schools, she'd talk with any reporter who'd listen about how wrong it was for the school district to shut parents out of important discussions. Things like school-admission policies, testing protocols, racial disparities and condom distribution.
And since 1999, when she opened Mathematic, Civics and Sciences Charter School, she's had an open-door policy with both the press and high-level visitors to its gleaming, orderly home at 447 N. Broad St.
And why wouldn't she? MCS consistently posts good grades in standardized academic-achievement tests. Parents rate the school high in independent parent-satisfaction surveys. And former district CEO Paul Vallas was so impressed with the place, he thought MCS should "serve as a role model for other charter schools in the district."
To my mind, Joyner has earned her fans the hard way - through years of hard work and a willingness to speak her mind when others were too cowed to open their mouths.
So it was weird last Thursday to sit in a conference room at Joyner's school and not be able to get an answer to a very simple question. I wanted to know: How many members of her family are or have ever been paid by either her school or her advocacy group?
"I am not allowed to say a word," Joyner said apologetically, referring all questions to her attorney, Lisa Mathewson. "I wish I could. You know me. I have always been open with the press. But I can't talk right now."
A day later, she called back to say she had changed her mind. She would answer questions, but I'd have to present them in an e-mail to Mathewson, after which they'd get back to me.
This is so not the way Joyner operates. But I guess that's what a federal probe of one of your key employees will do to you.
The FBI, as many know by now, is investigating Rhonda Sharif, the business manager at MCS. She appears to have been paid by two other charter schools at the same time.
The school is among 13 charters being investigated by City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who will release his final report in two weeks. But among his findings so far, the Inquirer reported yesterday, is that Joyner, as head of MCS, rents the school's property from Parents United, which she also heads.
That makes her both landlord and tenant, an odd arrangement according to Ben Rayer, who oversees charter schools for the Philadelphia School District.
"The positions should not overlap," he said.
I'll leave that for Butkovitz to puzzle out. While he's at it, maybe he can get to the bottom of the $536,093 in costs for travel and conferences that, according to the Inquirer, Joyner acknowledged that the MCS board approved - even though the school wasn't able to document them.
Mathewson, Joyner's lawyer, refused to discuss it with me.
Over half a million bucks in undocumented expenses, and the school's board votes to approve them? Hey, can I get a job there?
But all I wanted to ask about, when I dropped in to see Joyner last week, was the nature of her family members' involvement at the school. A source familiar with school operations complained that the place feels like "Veronica Joyner's family business," and I wanted to know if any relatives were on the payroll.
It seemed like a fair question to ask, given that charters are funded with taxpayer money and that other charter operators have taken heat for having kin on the payroll. Or for directing school contracts toward those with family ties to the school.
Yesterday, Mathewson confirmed that Joyner's son, Westley Joyner, and brother, William Jacobs, are employed in maintenance at MCS.
Joyner's husband, David Milligan, has a contract with MCS. The address of his company, Attendance and Truancy Services, LLC, is listed at 31 Maplewood Mall - the same as Parents United.
Another brother, Bernard Jacobs, used to work in maintenance at night but is no longer employed by the school.
Neither Joyner nor Mathewson would elaborate why.
On a personal note, I've got to say that I feel for Joyner, whose birthday is today. She's done good work for Philly's kids, and she seems anguished about not being able to shoot from the hip, as she's used to doing.
Something tells me, though, that things are going to get stickier before they get better. A source familiar with school operations shared with me a three-page memo that Joyner distributed yesterday to her staff. It asks them to take immediate steps to preserve all school information, dating from Jan.1, 2005, relating to a grand-jury subpoena served at the school.
The "categories of information" include, among others, payments made to Joyner and her son; to Sharif and her husband; to and from Parents United; and - yes - to "Club Damani," that now-shuttered nightclub run by Harambee Charter School.
Obviously, lots of questions are being raised by the feds.
I hope, for her sake, that Joyner's answers satisfy them.
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