The city's Board of Ethics has rejected a claim that William Penn Foundation-funded work that a consulting firm completed for the Philadelphia School District constituted lobbying.
A 2012 complaint alleged that William Penn - which paid the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) more than $1 million to study district operations and recommend cost-cutting measures - essentially hired BCG to lobby the district on a pro-charter school agenda and target dozens of schools for closure.
The complaint was filed by Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Home and School Council, and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, and suggested that a foundation official overtly tried to influence district officials.
The Ethics Board's ruling, issued Dec. 6 after a lengthy investigation, found that William Penn's actions did not strictly constitute lobbying. It did acknowledge that contracts between BCG and William Penn "create the appearance that BCG was working for the foundation and not the School District."
The board said that while Jeremy Nowak, then president of the foundation, regularly met with district officials, asked questions, and made suggestions about BCG's work, the lobbying law does not speak to what should happen when a private group makes grants to a public entity.
Witnesses told Ethics Board investigators they believed that "Nowak's role as a funding source gave him significant influence with and access to School District officials," according to the ruling. Nowak abruptly left the foundation late last year.
A William Penn spokesman said he was pleased that the matter was closed.
Foundation officials "look forward to devoting our full attention and resources to supporting organizations and initiatives that help make Philadelphia a better city," Josh Peskin, the spokesman, said. "We are eager to continue our work in helping to ensure that all children in this city have access to a high-quality education."
On Parents United's blog, founder Helen Gym expressed disappointment with the ruling.
"Locally and nationally, education reform is increasingly being defined by a host of venture philanthropists hovering about and crawling through school districts, using their dollars to demand enormous access and circumvent public process," Gym wrote. "The law cannot allow for philanthropy to become a backdoor way around traditional protections in the lobbying law."