Sisters of controversy

New "parent congresses" stoke claims of hidden agendas and conflict of interest.

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

Activist Quibila Divine has launched a citywide series of “parent congresses” meant to teach residents citywide how to advocate for change in their schools.

The new effort is underwritten by a combination of federal grant funds tied to Divine’s sister, School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms, and undisclosed funding connected to a group supported by the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), a private organization that supports charter expansion.

The inaugural parent congress was held on April 16 at Audenried Charter High School in South Philadelphia. The next will be held in May at Lewis Elkin Elementary.

Divine is expanding her role as a Philadelphia education advocate even as questions about her financial backing remain unanswered and possible conflict-of-interest issues for Simms – particularly as they relate to Thursday’s final vote on charter conversion for Germantown’s Wister Elementary – remain unexplored.

Despite calls for clarity, including from Mayor Kenney, Divine declined to share any details of the funding supporting her activities at Wister or the parent congresses.

“That’s not your business,” Divine said.

As a private citizen, Divine, who works for a Chicago-based public relations firm with close ties to PSP, is not required to disclose any information about her professional interests.

However, she has been the subject of scrutiny since her sister’s surprise move in January to restore Mastery Charter Schools’ bid to run Wister Elementary in Germantown, overriding the recommendation of Superintendent William Hite.

At the time, critics accused Divine of working for PSP and called for Simms to recuse herself from Wister-related votes.

And although reports have since confirmed that Divine was active at Wister during the charter-conversion campaign, neither Divine nor Simms has ever discussed those activities in any detail or responded to concerns about possible ethical conflicts that Divine’s work could create for Simms.

District officials have declined to say whether Simms has disclosed any information about Divine’s current employment.

Donna Cooper, head of the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children & Youth, said that Divine, as a private citizen, is well within her rights to decline to share information about her work.

It is Simms, Cooper said, who is responsible for disclosing possible conflicts and avoiding the appearance of impropriety. Simms has denied knowledge of her sister’s paid work.

“With any school matter that’s coming before the SRC for a decision, at a school where Quibila Divine works, Sylvia should have to recuse herself from the vote,” Cooper said.

The stakes around the conflict of interest question are high. If Simms were forced to recuse herself from this vote on the five-member board, the Wister-Mastery bid would likely fail. One other commission member, Farah Jimenez, already recuses herself from votes involving Mastery because her husband does legal work for the charter operator.

Wister parents who wanted the school to remain under the control of the District are convinced that Divine’s mission at Wister was to muster pro-Mastery support, even as she presented herself as an unbiased education advocate. They believe Simms should have disclosed more information about Divine’s employment.

They fear that a hidden agenda also will be at work with the parent congresses.

“I think they’re in their comfort zone: ‘I can’t be touched,’” said Wister parent Novilette Jones, part of a parent group that hopes to keep Wister under District control and make it one of the 25 “community schools” that Kenney is promising to create in the city.

Divine and her allies, however, have conjectured that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is driving the stepped-up scrutiny with secret funding of its own to advocates and the press.

For their part, union officials say that all of their advocacy is a matter of public record, and pro-District Wister supporters deny receiving any covert payments. The Notebook’s reporting has not so far revealed any unexplained expenses or professional support for the pro-District Wister supporters.

The congress
Photo: Harvey Finkle

The inaugural parent congress drew several dozen people to hear panel discussions on topics such as choosing schools and working with principals.

One sponsor was Simms’ group Parent Power, a parent organizing group based in North Philadelphia. It was initially founded by Simms to support the efforts of then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Parent Power is using funds from a three-year, $75,000 federal Race to the Top grant to create a new advocacy project called “The PLAN” (short for Parent Leaders Advisory Network).

Other funding for the congress came through a group called Educational Opportunities for Families (EOF), tied to PSP, a private fund that supports charter expansion and “high quality” options. Divine frequently represents EOF in public.

The goal of the congress project is to help parents engage in school governance and advocacy, for example, by joining School Advisory Councils (SACs) or by joining districtwide advisory boards and lobbying SRC members directly.

Simms is the champion of a current SRC effort to create parent-dominated SACs in each school, clarify their role, and beef up their influence.

“There are no limitations,” said Divine of the parent advocates’ potential activities.

Divine said the new parent congresses would be agnostic on questions of “school type,” engaging supporters of District, charter, and parochial schools.

But the congress’ motto – “No More Waiting for Quality Schools” – was first used by PSP in a recent charter-expansion campaign. The final session at the April 16 congress on “next steps” featured four supporters of charter expansion: SRC Commissioner Bill Green, PSP spokesperson Jacob Waters, and two officials of charter organizations. There were no advocates for traditional District-run schools or the community schools initiative.

That kind of apparent, but unacknowledged, imbalance concerns those who watched Divine at Wister.

“Whenever I see the word ‘quality,’ I know what’s behind it,” said Jones.

Divine said she believes there is nothing wrong with Parent Power, Simms’ group, organizing parents to potentially influence Simms and her fellow commissioners on crucial policy matters. Divine implied that Simms can separate how she votes on the SRC from any advocacy work with parents in favor of a particular school-reform direction.

“Sylvia as Parent Power is totally different from Sylvia as a commissioner,” she said. “You’re striving to mix apples and oranges.”

Christine Carlson, head of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition and a panelist at last weekend’s congress, said she believed it was impossible for Divine or anyone else to sustain a community-organizing effort without being transparent about the funding – and possible interests – behind it.

Carlson, who accepted the invitation to speak without knowing about “the shadow” hanging over Divine’s activities, recommended that Divine share as many details as possible.

“You need to be honest,” Carlson said. “We all don’t have to agree with one another [but] somehow we’ve got to come and do that.”

Another speaker at the congress, Green, was unconcerned about the lack of clarity in the event’s funding.

“I don’t look into the source of funding of the people who invite me to come speak to families,” said Green, who is suing Gov. Wolf to regain the SRC chairmanship. Wolf replaced Green with Marjorie Neff; Green says it was due in part to their political disagreement over charter expansion.

Asked whether it was a good-government practice to have undisclosed funders organizing parents to lobby the SRC, Green laughed out loud and said, “You must be kidding, right? You mean like the PFT …? Ask them if they are funding any people who speak at Council, or City Council candidates, or others. It’s all opaque.”

Union officials said that all of their public advocacy and candidate support is on the record, and Green could not cite a specific instance of possibly undisclosed advocacy on the part of the union.

“I think that there has been in the past,” Green said.

Wister vote due this week

With the final vote on Wister set for Thursday, April 28, no further information about Divine’s role or its implications for Simms appears forthcoming from any official source. The State Ethics Board has received a formal complaint, but any investigation would not be complete before the scheduled vote.

PFT president Jerry Jordan and some union allies – including the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, an opponent of charter expansion – have called on the SRC to investigate Divine’s role and shed light on possible conflict questions for Simms. APPS is an organization led by retired teachers, nurses, and counselors, and it also includes parents and community members.

But SRC Chair Neff confirmed that no such inquiry is pending. “That’s not an SRC function,” she said.

Under state law, the District is not required to investigate commissioners’ disclosures for accuracy.

Simms has long pleaded ignorance about what Divine does, saying she knows nothing about her sister’s professional activities. Nor have District officials weighed in on the implications of a possible Divine-PSP partnership.

“It is the practice of the Office of General Counsel not to respond to hypotheticals,” said District Counsel Michael Davis in a statement.

Several prominent officials, including the mayor, have called for clear answers about whether Divine helped organize community support for Mastery’s bid for Wister.

“If true, these allegations are troubling,” wrote Kenney spokeswoman Deana Gamble. “Mayor Kenney urges all those involved to proactively disclose any relationships that would shine a light on this situation."

City Council member Helen Gym is a sharp critic of the SRC’s practice of converting some District schools to charters who was elected with strong support from the PFT. She promised to examine the issue closely the next time District officials appear at City Hall for public hearings.

If any commissioner failed to disclose that a close relative was professionally organizing Philadelphia residents so that they might influence the SRC, Gym said, “that commissioner should step down.”

Simms, Divine, and their supporters have defended themselves as passionate and honest advocates. They say they are frustrated by questions about possible conflicts of interest.

Mastery officials say that “according to everything that we know,” the Wister process was transparent and the public should have confidence in the SRC’s decision to revive the charter provider’s bid.

“We are greatly encouraged by the community’s enthusiasm about working with us,” said Mastery spokesperson Kirk Dorn. “We believe the SRC’s decision was based solely on Mastery’s history of performance and the overwhelming community support for a Mastery partnership.”

However, Mastery confirmed that there were activities of the pro-Mastery Wister parent group, including advocacy before the SRC, that it did not organize.

That leaves Jones and other pro-District Wister parents believing that their own efforts to influence the SRC’s Wister decision – launched with the help of volunteers from Parents United for Public Education (co-founded by Helen Gym) and with occasional help with PR from the teachers’ union — were undercut by paid PR professionals who did not reveal their interests.

They worry that the parent congresses will prove to be a covert vehicle for pro-charter advocacy, aiming, for example, to fill newly empowered SACs with charter-expansion supporters.

Jones said that despite all the unanswered questions, her group still holds out hope that the SRC will reject Mastery’s bid and that Wister could end up as a District-run community school.

“I hate to feel that we’re down and out, because we’re not,” said Jones. “But the clock is ticking.”

Editor’s note: Councilwoman Helen Gym was one of the founders of the Notebook in 1994. Christine Carlson is a Notebook member and occasionally contributes commentaries.