Foundations withdraws bid for King

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Bill Hangley, Jr.

Citing the influence of a “small and vocal minority," Foundations Inc. today took itself out of consideration for the charter to operate Martin Luther King High in Germantown, ending the organization’s eight-year relationship with the school.

The decision will delay King’s planned charter conversion for at least a year.

District officials said in a statement that they would bring additional resources to King and work closely with the volunteer parent group known as the School Advisory Council (SAC) throughout the coming school year.

In a letter sent to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and School Reform Commission Chair Robert L. Archie, first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Foundations CEO Rhonda Lauer said that the New Jersey-based nonprofit was “deeply disappointed” with the process surrounding the attempted conversion of King to a charter school, part of Ackerman’s signature Renaissance Schools initiative.

“Rules seemed to evolve and shift in such a way that legitimate voices were excluded from the conversation and decision-making,” Lauer wrote.

Foundations spokesman John Henderson confirmed that Lauer sent the letter. “I think her letter speaks to it all,” Henderson said.

King’s charter is worth an estimated $12 million a year.

Conchevia Washington, a King parent and chair of the King SAC, called the announcement “a victory, but it’s sad.”

“It’s a shame because the kids will come back next week, and once again be blindsided,” she said.

The SAC originally recommended Mosaica Education over Foundations, its only two choices. Foundations has worked in the school since 2003 in a more limited capacity as an “educational management organization,” or EMO, with partial control over curriculum, programming, and operations.

Created by the District to recommend a provider and monitor the Renaissance process, the SAC vetted the interested providers, considered the input of hundreds of parents and students, and picked Mosaica over Foundations by a vote of 8-1. The SRC formally endorsed the recommendation on March 16 by a 3-0 vote, with Archie abstaining.

But Mosaica pulled out the next day after a Mosaica executive, John Porter, met in private with Archie and State Rep. Dwight Evans, both of whom have public ties to Foundations.

Archie, an appointee of Mayor Michael Nutter, has recused himself from voting on all Foundations-related matters because his firm, Duane Morris, has done legal work for the organization. Archie is also Evans’ longtime friend and political supporter.

Evans has said he used the closed-door meeting to advocate for Foundations and his own plans, but denied pressuring Mosaica to leave. Porter has not commented on the meeting’s contents, and Archie has said only that he was there in his official capacity to “facilitate collaboration among Mosaica, Representative Evans, and the District.”

Mosaica said upon withdrawing that it did not want to interfere with Evans’ plans for King and the neighborhood, and said it would focus its attention on another Philadelphia Renaissance school it will run next year, Birney Elementary.

In the wake of Mosaica’s departure, the King SAC had been pressing the District to retain control of King rather than turn it over to Foundations.

In her letter to the District, Lauer did not say what “legitimate voices” she felt were being kept out of the decision-making process. Evans has cited a straw poll taken at one Renaissance meeting that favored Foundations over Mosaica and suggested that it should be considered significant. Washington said Archie brought up the same survey at a recent meeting between the SRC and the King SAC (Archie did not respond to a request for comment about that meeting).

Foundations’ current management contract expires in June and will not be renewed, District official say. By all accounts, climate and safety have improved during Foundations’ years at the school, and the organization has helped bring in signature amenities like a gardening program and annual visits from the Philadelphia Orchestra.

But test scores have remained stubbornly low. Statistically speaking, King’s academic performance is comparable to that that of other District neighborhood high schools.

Throughout the Renaissance process, Foundations officials argued that with the broader powers of a charter, such as the ability to hire non-union staff, the organization would be better able to boost academic performance.

Officials from Mosaica, a for-profit company based in Atlanta, have said they would consider returning to King if full community support were in place. Porter said Thursday that the company’s position in that regard remains unchanged. Porter, once a student of Ackerman’s at the Broad Superintendents Academy in Oakland, said he was most concerned for King’s students. "The unfortunate thing is what this means for the children," he said. "I feel sorry for them."

Washington, who said the King SAC currently includes 11 active members, including parents, community residents, a King student, and the school nurse, said she’s sorry to see King’s transition become so tangled.

“You can’t believe that you try to teach your children about conflict resolution, how to solve your issues with people and with things,” said Washington, who said she hadn’t had a chance to speak with the other members of the King SAC to discuss the news. “To see grown folk having to fight it out – without boxing gloves, but we’re fighting it out. It’s crazy.”

With no active candidates for the charter, King’s long-term future is now unclear. A vote by the SRC was scheduled for next Wednesday, which would have required the SRC to choose between Foundations and leaving the school under District control. Ackerman had said she would support whatever decision the SRC makes regarding King.

Lauer, in her letter, said that in the wake of Mosaica’s departure, Foundations had been “fully prepared to act upon a positive vote of the SRC." It had already begun recruiting teachers and school leaders. But she said the company had decided that an atmosphere of “unrelenting hostility” would make it “immensely difficult” for the company to be successful at King.

She wrote that Foundations would “continue to be actively engaged in efforts to improve educational opportunities for students and families in the Northwest Philadelphia community," despite this withdrawal from the school it once called its “flagship.”

This story is part of a news-gathering partnership between the Notebook and NewsWorks.