School district officials will visit the Harambee Institute Charter School today to find out firsthand about allegations that the West Philadelphia school has been selling alcohol on weekends.
"We are going to seriously look at the charges and do what we have to do up to closing the school, if we have to," Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman said yesterday.
Earlier in the day City Controller Alan Butkovitz accused Harambee of running a school by day but a nightclub after hours. The school was "found to be operating a nightclub and serving alcohol illegally" on weekends, he said. Harambee Charter is on 66th Street near Media.
But Butkovitz focused his news conference yesterday on his findings that a woman working as Harambee's chief financial officer, Rhonda Sharif, was - at the same time - employed in a similar capacity at two other charter schools: the Math, Civics and Sciences Charter, at Broad and Spring Garden streets, and the Khepera Charter School, on Carpenter Lane, near Cresheim Street, in Mount Airy.
Butkovitz said that Sharif first worked for Harambee in 2003, at a salary of $33,046.
In 2008, Sharif made $183,108 from all three schools, and had put in for having worked 463 days, the controller said.
In addition, a construction company owned by Sharif's husband, "Str8-Hand Construction Inc.," received an estimated $7.5 million in maintenance contracts at the same three schools where Sharif worked.
No one answered the phone at Harambee yesterday. The school published an open letter on its Web site calling media reports a "misrepresentation" and "a very one-sided and unbalanced view of what charter schools represent. "
Butkovitz said that he was prompted to investigate financial operations at several charter schools following the federal probe of Philadelphia Academy Charter School, in Northeast Philadelphia. The school's founder, Brien Gardiner, committed suicide in May 2009 before his trial.
Benjamin Rayer, the district's official in charge of charter and Renaissance schools, said last night that he will visit Harambee today. He said the school's CEO told him that the building operated a banquet hall for weddings and birthdays. A Web site touts the facility as the Damani Banquet Hall.
"There has been a liquor license assigned to the property since 1936, to what at the time was the Overbrook Italian-American Democratic Club," said Stacey Witalec, spokeswoman for the state Liquor Control Board. But the license, transferred to the Harambee Institute Corp. in 2002, expired Oct. 31, 2008, Witalec said.Harambee School was incorporated on Aug. 8, 1997, and received $14.7 million in public funds in 2005-2007.
Staff writer Kitty Caparella contributed to this report.