The shameful, despicable tug-of-war for a lucrative charter-school contract to operate Martin Luther King High School comes straight from the Philadelphia politics playbook.

A closed, backroom meeting where the powerful elite wrangle over who gets which slice of the pie is sadly a proud tradition in this city.

In fact, an episode of Sam Katz's documentary series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment broadcast Tuesday on 6ABC noted the same type of wheeling and dealing after the Civil War.

The MLK School saga has so many twists and turns and players you need a scorecard to keep up. Mayor Nutter has ordered an investigation by his chief integrity officer. But criticisms that he was late to the game are noteworthy. A mayor who won office on a promise to clean up the city's ethics shouldn't be shy.

The public is waiting to hear why an Atlanta firm abruptly pulled out of a coveted deal worth millions to take over MLK after that closed-door meeting, which included School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie and State Rep. Dwight Evans.

Mosaica Turnaround Partners Inc. had been chosen by the SRC to run the high school in East Germantown. The vote was 3-0, with Archie abstaining because his law firm represents another charter-school operator that was also vying for the MLK contract.

That other operator is Foundations Inc., a New Jersey nonprofit with close ties to Evans. MLK isn't in the legislative district that Evans represents, but it was public knowledge that he wanted Foundations to get the MLK contract.

Archie hasn't explained why, after previously abstaining, he felt it was ethical for him to meet with Evans and Mosaica officials. Deputy School Superintendent Leroy Nunery was also there. Archie says no pressure was put on Mosaica. But that's hard to believe since no other reason for it to drop out is known.

Then, just as inexplicable, Foundations decided it also no longer wanted to turn MLK into a charter. So, it will remain a regular public school for at least another year.

The whole episode is yet another indication that the SRC has become ineffective as the watchdog that is supposed to ride herd on education reform in the city.

MLK's plight also shows it's time to change the state's 1997 charter-school law. It should be a conflict of interest for elected officials who decide how state education funding is allocated to have ties to charters. Those ties lead to the type of deals that must be relegated to Philadelphia's past.