Simms, Divine, and the Wister vote: A question of interest

The commissioner has not disclosed who is funding her sister's position with a pro-charter consulting group. Experts weigh in on the ethical issues involved.

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

When Quibila Divine testified Feb. 18 before the School Reform Commission, she delivered a passionate defense of herself and her sister, Commissioner Sylvia Simms. The two have been the subjects of scrutiny ever since Simms’ surprise move at the Jan. 21 SRC meeting, in defiance of Superintendent William Hite, to revive Mastery Charter’s bid for Wister Elementary.

In her testimony, Divine proudly challenged her critics. “In our community, we are the solution, and not the problem,” she concluded.

But Divine did not answer a question that ethics watchdogs and legal observers say could have significant implications for her sister’s’ future SRC votes: whether Divine has a professional or financial involvement that could pose a conflict of interest for Simms.

The law is unequivocal, experts say. “If there is a conflict, you need to abstain,” said Rob Caruso, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

Divine has been mum about her professional duties, beyond the fact that she works for a Chicago-based public relations firm, specializing in charter school outreach. Her SRC testimony was her first public statement since the night of the Wister vote, when activist Pamela Williams rose with a shout to protest the SRC’s 3-1 approval of Simms’ resolution.

“You should have recused yourself!” Williams yelled repeatedly at Simms from the back rows of the auditorium. “Your sister has a contract … with Mark Gleason right there!” she said, pointing to the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, who was in the audience.

Activist Pam Williams accuses Sylvia Simms of failing to acknowledge a conflict of interest after a critical vote at the Jan. 21 SRC meeting. (Video by Media Mobilizing Project)

It was a surprise allegation with serious implications, raising the question of whether Divine was getting paid to promote a charter while her sister was setting in motion that charter’s approval. If Divine stands to gain from any Wister decision, ethics experts say, that could require Simms to recuse herself – a move that would likely take away the critical third vote Mastery would need to win the Wister bid.

Since that day, Divine has confirmed that she currently works for the Chicago-based Citizen Consulting Group, a small enterprise with close ties to PSP.

But Divine and her employers have both declined repeated requests to discuss her work, who funds it, or how it might connect with her documented activity at Wister.

Simms and District legal counsel Michael Davis say Divine’s professional activities pose no conflict for the commissioner.

Yet the public record reveals little about the nature of Divine’s work for Citizen Consulting.

The Notebook spent three weeks asking questions to find out more, and neither Simms, nor Divine, nor Divine’s employer, nor District officials, nor PSP offered any new answers.

Mastery officials have stated unequivocally that Divine was not working for them at Wister or anywhere else.

“Mastery has no relationship with Quibila Divine or her employer,” said Mastery spokesperson Kirk Dorn. “We are not guiding or even coordinating with their activities.”

PSP, a private nonprofit that is not required to disclose information about its contracts, will neither confirm nor deny hiring Citizen or Divine, instead calling such questions an “insult” to Simms and Wister parents supporting Mastery.

The organization’s most recent annual report, for 2014, shows expenditures of $17 million, including $3 million for professional services, marketing, and communications.

Divine herself referred all questions to her employer, Citizen CEO Chris Butler, who has been silent. Butler did not respond to multiple requests for comment over several weeks. Citizen’s website, which listed Divine as a staffer and PSP as a client, has recently gone “under construction.”

Only Divine’s and Simms’ friend Anna Figueroa, a Wister grandparent who is now an enthusiastic Mastery supporter, offered any explanation of Divine’s involvement at Wister.

“I invited [her] to educate us, and that’s it,” said Figueroa, who is also the vice president of Simms’ group Parent Power. “She didn’t force anything on us.”

So there is still no definitive word on Divine’s employment, who funds it, what it includes, and where her activity at Wister fits in.

Experts say the answer could have implications for Simms’ ability to vote in this case and perhaps in other charter-related situations as well.

Caruso, of the Ethics Commission, said that if there is an undisclosed conflict, “the commissioner should make an announcement of such, and then abstain” from any future vote affected.

Likewise, Caruso said, if Simms can clear up lingering questions about Divine and show that no conflict exists, that would boost the public’s confidence in the integrity of the next Mastery vote – the latest battle in the increasingly bitter war over what to do about Philadelphia schools with chronically low achievement.

A central question

By law, experts say, public officials must disclose any conflicts involving family members whose material interests could be at play in public decisions, such as SRC votes.

Relationships such as Simms’ and Divine’s are only an ethics concern if they result in an “undue influence” on a public official’s decisions, said David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy.

Given what’s on the record so far, “it’s hard for me to see that here,” Thornburgh said.

However, attorney Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center said that with so little known about Divine’s work and Citizen’s pro-charter history so clear, the public has reason to seek details. Depending on the exact terms of Divine’s employment, he said, the implications for Simms could be dramatic.

For instance, “If [Divine] had a financial interest in increasing charter attendance in Philadelphia, it would be an ethical violation for Simms to vote on a matter which would increase charter attendance,” said Churchill, who recently won the Philadelphia Bar Foundation Award for public service.

Caruso said that Pennsylvania’s ethics law does not require District officials to investigate the accuracy of officials’ disclosures.

Nor does the law compel Divine, a private citizen, to speak. And without reliable information about Divine’s professional activities and financial stake, Caruso said, members of the public will be hard-pressed to judge whether Simms and Davis were correct to rule out any ethical issues.

“As far as determining a financial conflict of interest as it’s defined in the Ethics Act, I don’t think they can,” based on what is known now, said Caruso.

The record shows clearly that Divine was engaged in an organized manner at Wister and that one of her colleagues – former PSP employee Joseph Butler – attended at least one key Wister-related event.

Meeting logs, event flyers, and source reports show that Divine attended community meetings at Wister and organized one of her own.

And attached to Divine’s activity are expenses that seem to indicate outside support for the pro-Mastery campaign, including some for the dinner served at the Germantown community meeting that Divine and Figueroa, the Wister grandparent, organized. Figueroa also declined to say who paid to transport a vanload of Mastery supporters to a meeting with Simms and SRC member Bill Green in January on the day before the pivotal SRC vote.

A long career in advocacy

Bastiaan Slabbers

Divine’s Feb. 18 testimony added nothing new to the limited public record about her current professional involvements, or Citizen’s.

Simms has denied any knowledge of Divine’s work. “I don’t know what my sister’s got,” she said immediately after the Wister vote, when asked about Williams’ outburst.

For public officials, however, knowing is part of the job, experts say.

“Any business or personal relationship that affects a significant decision or transaction ought to be disclosed,” Thornburgh said. “That’s what annual disclosure statements are for.”

Simms’ most recent available annual public disclosure was filed in April 2015, but it covers 2014, before Divine joined Citizen.

And after Simms’ controversial vote, District officials quickly dismissed any possibility of a conflict.

In an unusual after-the-fact ethics ruling the next day, District counsel Davis concluded that no conflict existed because Divine hasn’t worked for Mastery and Simms hadn’t helped her get the job with Citizen.

Davis and Simms, asked later whether they were aware of Divine’s employment and her documented activity at Wister, both declined to comment.

Davis likewise declined comment on whether Divine’s involvement in pro-Mastery advocacy funded by an outside source would constitute a conflict for Simms. He referred to his earlier ruling.

And in a statement, Simms addressed no details, saying: “It was clear to me that the Wister families I met with wanted the opportunity to have a better education. … Somebody’s got to stand up for these parents, and that’s what I did."

Divine, in a long and respected career, has served as a professional outreach specialist and volunteer advocate concerning many educational issues. She has worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Philadelphia School District. She has joined campaigns to advance early literacy and fair funding, teaming up with organizations of all kinds. Last year she was named a member of Mayor Kenney’s transition team.

School choice became a visible priority for Divine after she signed with Citizen last spring. Her recent publicized activities include a lecture on “advocating to improve schools [and] increase quality seats” and a workshop featuring a former PSP employee.

Beyond such occasional appearances, the public record shows little to indicate what Divine’s professional duties for Citizen might be.

What the record does show is a Citizen-PSP connection that dates back to at least 2013, when PSP staffer Joseph Butler left his position to join his brother Chris at Citizen – though Joseph Butler still maintains a PSP email address. The young firm would soon have Mastery and PSP as clients, providing outreach and community networking. One of Citizen’s latest projects is a pro-charter advocacy group called Educational Opportunities for Families, which prominently features PSP videos (and little else) on its website.

Mastery officials say their contract with Citizen, for outreach in Camden, ended last March.

Divine signed on with Citizen the next month; her job description on the website LinkedIn reads, “Work to achieve organizational goals and objectives through public awareness and engagement.”

Figueroa was adamant that Divine came to Wister “as a volunteer.” But she said she knows little of Divine’s work or her Chicago connections – only that Divine is a “consultant” whose focus is “high-quality education.”

But parents opposing the charter takeover who saw Divine’s activity up close said she seemed more like a professional with an interest in the outcome – but not one she would openly acknowledge.

A visit to Wister triggers suspicion

Divine appeared at Wister in early December, joining Figueroa at the meetings of a parent group that wanted to see Wister stay under District control.

“She said, ‘I’m Quibila Divine, and I’m a member of Jim Kenney’s transition team,’” Wister parent Kenya Nation recalled. “I said, ‘Great! Jim Kenney’s for community schools! We’ve got someone on our side!’”

Supported by volunteers from Parents United for Public Education (and eventually the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which helped with some PR), the parent group met weekly. Figueroa began attending early on; Divine joined her twice, listening quietly and displaying no noticeable pro-charter sentiment.

To the contrary. Divine once promised Nation that she’d deliver a message from the parents to the mayor.

“We were so happy,” Nation recalled.

A spokesman for the mayor said Kenney doesn’t recall getting a message from Divine, one of more than 100 transition team members.

But Nation and the others vividly recall the invitation they got from Divine and Figueroa to attend a workshop on “parents’ rights,” which proved to be a lecture from Divine on sliding test scores, ending with a visit from a Mastery recruiter.

Ted Stones, a 30-year Germantown resident and activist, helped plan the event, after running into Divine and Figueroa at another function. His name ended up on the promotional flyer next to Divine’s. But Stones said that Divine’s meeting, held Dec. 9 at New Redeemer Church on Germantown Avenue, didn’t go as planned or advertised. He ended up deeply disappointed.

“Everything is being done so the real intention is disguised,” said Stones, an Action United board member and committed charter critic. “If it came up in the planning meeting that this was for charters, I would have noticed. I would have vehemently rejected.”

Rather than focusing on “rights” such as parents’ ability to visit schools and engage with teachers, Divine’s lecture, according to several attendees, was about the District’s inability to boost chronically low test scores – including those in District-run turnarounds like Steel Elementary.

“She was talking about scores, doing examples, teaching the parents how to read the scores,” said Figueroa. “It was educating us how to read data.”

Divine’s case for charters was implied but clear, Stones said. “She didn’t say it explicitly, because I think she was aware of what she was doing.”

“As I recall, she didn’t do any selling of Mastery,” said Robin Lowry, a Wister teacher. “She was just painting a picture of how awful things are at Wister.”

“If we’re supposed to be learning our rights, I’m confused,” parent Novilette Jones recalled thinking.

When Mastery employee Winslow Mason arrived at the event to recruit parents for school visits, Jones concluded that she’d been “set up.” Stones and Lowry, too, felt like victims of a bait-and-switch.

“I feel you got us here so you could get the Mastery people to convert us,” said Stones.

Mastery says their staffer’s visit to Divine’s meeting wasn’t at their direction; Figueroa said it was just by chance.

But Jones said her suspicions only deepened the next day, when Mason and Figueroa visited her hair salon, bearing Mastery’s distinctive royal blue shirts. Figueroa told Jones that she’d converted just that morning, after visiting a Mastery school.

“We did not pressure her,” said Figueroa later. “I just wanted to tell her what I had seen, that I was impressed.”

A meeting with Green

After the church meeting, Divine didn’t revisit Wister’s pro-District parent group. Figueroa soon became active in the pro-Mastery parent group, joining other members at public events and appearing in videos on Mastery’s Facebook page.

Figueroa also joined Mastery supporters on the visit with Simms and Bill Green, the day before Simms’ game-changing Mastery resolution.

Mastery officials say they endorsed that trip, but didn’t organize or fund it.

“The SRC and Dr. Hite are public officials, and the parents felt they had a right to get their voices heard,” said Dorn of Mastery. “They told us what they were doing, and we supported and appreciated it.”

Figueroa said the private session was organized by “the parents” and not Divine or anyone else. She said she was acting as an individual and Wister grandparent, and not as a representative of Parent Power.

But Figueroa declined to say who covered the trip’s expenses, such as the van ride that took a dozen Mastery supporters from Germantown to District headquarters in Center City.

“We needed a ride and we got it – that’s all you need to know,” Figueroa said.

As for the meeting itself, Green said he sympathized with the Mastery supporters’ concerns – Mastery is “the best in the country,” he said, and is “a partner the District needs to work in good faith with and not surprise.” He said he made no promises to the group.

Instead, Green said he told them he would check one last time with Hite to learn more about why he changed his mind about making Wister a charter and did this in executive session before the SRC meeting.

Still, Green said he was caught by surprise that evening when Simms brought her motion to the floor. But he was happy to back her.

As someone who has described his own role on the SRC as “blocking and tackling” for Hite, Green said, he could not have realistically moved on his own to restore Mastery’s bid.

But “Sylvia felt very strongly about this. I wanted to support her,” said Green. “I also believed that it would be in the best interest of the children at Wister. The reality is, it’s a very different dynamic for Sylvia to stand up and fight for children than it is for me.

“If I did it, it would be, ‘Green and Hite fight.’”

A surprise vote draws a crowd

Jan. 21 wasn’t a red-letter SRC event for pro-District Wister parents.

Some, like Nation, stayed home, having been assured by District staff that “Wister being a charter was no longer an option,” she recalled.

But three other groups were well-represented: Mastery Wister supporters, Citizen employees, and PSP executives.

Divine and Joseph Butler from Citizen Consulting were present at the meeting, with Butler seated close to PSP’s two top officials, Mark Gleason and Mike Wang.

Near them was an energetic group of blue-shirted Mastery supporters, whose visit that day, like the visit to see Simms and Green, was endorsed but not organized by Mastery officials. Those supporters cheered with delight when Simms brought up her motion and cheered louder when it passed.

Among the happiest that night was Mastery supporter William Jackson, a former Wister parent and frequent public presence during the campaign. Photographs show a gleeful Jackson giving PSP’s Gleason a warm embrace after the vote.

Back in Germantown, Nation was stunned.

“Sylvia Simms said she heard an ‘outcry’ from Wister parents,” she said. “She never spoke to me! What about my outcries?”

Now, with Mastery still awaiting a final vote on Wister’s status, community members on both sides say the campaign has been bruising, divisive, and increasingly personal.

But neither side plans to give up now.

A detailed proposal is due from Mastery on March 11, and the SRC will vote in the spring on whether to turn over Wister to Mastery and turn two other schools over to other charter organizations.

Simms’ vote would likely be essential. SRC member Farah Jimenez recuses herself from Mastery decisions (her husband does legal work for the charter), and SRC Chair Marjorie Neff has consistently voted against charter turnarounds.

Bill Green and Feather Houstoun have supported Mastery, and would probably need Simms as the critical third vote.

Pro-District parents such as Jones say the new details and unanswered questions about Divine’s employment have hardened their resolve to press their case.

Pamela Williams, whose angry outburst at the SRC’s Jan. 21 meeting first highlighted Divine’s connection to Citizen, said she wants to know whether the Renaissance process was “polluted” by any “collusion” among PR professionals, Mastery officials, PSP, and volunteers, including Figueroa.

On the other side, Figueroa said, Mastery supporters are frustrated by the scrutiny about finances and conflicts of interest.

“We are not getting paid,” she said. “We just want to make a difference.”

And Mastery officials, who responded in detail to numerous inquiries over the course of weeks, also expressed frustration.

“It’s disgraceful that people not affiliated with the school and who don’t live in the community are trying so relentlessly to discredit these parents,” Dorn said.

Simms herself has not committed to a final Wister decision and has said she only wanted one more chance for public review.

“I am not prejudging the application or saying I would vote to support it,” Simms said in January.

Meanwhile, with Divine and her employers silent, the central ethical question remains unresolved.

What’s currently on the record about Divine and Simms, the Committee of Seventy’s Thornburgh said, does not clearly indicate undue pressure or quid pro quo corruption.

“I honestly can’t see that here,” Thornburgh said.

But Churchill sees enough unanswered questions to warrant further investigation into the specific terms of Divine’s compensation, “either by the District or by an independent ethics board,” in order to rule out possible conflicts.

Caruso said that, given the stakes and the bitter controversy, full disclosure is wise before the final vote on the charter conversions. He cautioned that votes, once cast, can’t be undone; if a conflict should be revealed after the fact, the Ethics Commission could assess penalties, but couldn’t change the outcome of a vote that’s already been finalized.

“We don’t have that authority,” he said.

And Thornburgh noted that public officials who want to be effective need to consider more than formal disclosure rules. The appearance of impropriety alone can lead to controversies that can derail any agenda, he said.

“The ‘True North’ question is always this: Is this something that would embarrass me or my office if it ended up on the front page of the paper?” Thornburgh said. “Any distraction … burns up time and energy and could ultimately destroy his or her chance of achieving what he or she wanted to achieve.”