Questions over charter school payments to contractor
ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania paid over $163,000 for painting at a charter school, where employees say they did the work.
EMPLOYEES AT Olney Charter School are questioning the payment of thousands of dollars to a contractor hired to paint the school because they say they do not recollect that a contractor ever did work at Olney.
According to invoices from the school, ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania, the North Philadelphia charter-school operator that manages Olney, paid $163,365 to Lyon Contracting Inc. to paint the school in 2011. But employees who recently learned of the payments say school janitors and building maintenance workers performed the work.
The Daily News interviewed 10 current and former employees who worked at Olney or ASPIRA around the time Lyon billed for the work. Each recounted what happened inside the school on the condition that their names not be published, citing fear of retaliation from ASPIRA.
Almost "everything in that place got done by us. Every single thing," said one Olney staffer. "I never see anyone rolling no brush but us. It was always me and the crew."
Added another employee who worked at Olney in 2011: "I have never seen a paint company here."
The employees said that among the areas they painted were the cafeteria, hallways, staircases and gym - the same areas Lyon billed for between Aug. 26 and Nov. 21, 2011 for work on unspecified dates.
ASPIRA controller Orlando Rendon Jr. denied any suggestion that Lyon did not do the work.
"That's inaccurate," he said when told of the claims. "I saw them painting."
Rendon even offered workers' W-9 forms as proof that the work had been completed.
But the W-9 documentation never came. And Rendon did not respond to subsequent phone calls or emails about the painting contracts.
Meanwhile, the Daily News called and emailed ASPIRA CEO Alfredo Calderon and ASPIRA board members to ask: When was the work at Olney done? Why aren't dates for the work listed on the invoices? Can we see the W-9s? Was Olney's principal notified that a contractor had been hired to paint and informed when contractors would be working in the building? But the calls and emails went unanswered.
Attempts to reach representatives for Lyon Contracting were unsuccessful.
Contacted about the invoices and employee claims, John F. Downs, the inspector general for the Philadelphia School District, which oversees charter schools, vowed to investigate.
"Submitting bills for work that isn't done is fraud," he said. If the work wasn't done, "it's tax dollars being wasted."
A history in N. Philly
The nonprofit ASPIRA is a 45-year-old North Philadelphia community education organization that operates five charter schools with 3,800 students in grades K-12. It also oversees a Head Start program for 422 children and last month filed an application with the district to open a new K-8 school - Ramon E. Betances Charter.
During the 2013-14 fiscal year, ASPIRA schools - Olney in Olney; Pantoja in North Philly; Aspira Bilingual Cyber in Hunting Park; Eugenia de Hostos in Olney; and John B. Stetson in Kensington - received $44.3 million in payments from the school district.
The funding for each school is deposited into its bank account every month based on student attendance. ASPIRA manages the accounts for each school, provides services such as information technology and security and pays itself a management fee from each school's account for its services. ASPIRA listed revenue minus expenses of $358,465 on its 2013 tax return.
All hands on deck
The Olney High building was in shambles in July and August 2011 when the district handed it to ASPIRA to convert to a charter school, as part of an initiative to turn around low-performing schools.
To prepare for its Sept. 6 opening, school leaders invited families to Olney on Aug. 6 for a Community Painting Day. That day, community members and Olney staff worked feverishly at the disheveled school. Teachers painted their classrooms, and the maintenance crew painted, removed trash and cleaned up the campus, according to Olney staffers there at the time. Maintenance workers from three other ASPIRA-run schools were brought in to help.
Limited by the tick-tock of school opening, maintenance workers initially painted only the building's high-traffic areas - the exterior fire doors on each floor, the first-floor hallway and the cafeteria; a crew member recalled. But they later painted the gym, hallways and staircases, the worker said.
"From my memory it was us. All day it was us," said another educator.
Added another employee: "I clearly remember [the painters] our staff. The maintenance crew."
Lyon sent its invoices to ASPIRA, which approved each. Two invoices - one for Aug. 26 and another for Sept. 12 - list painting of the cafeteria ($8,625), hallways ($52,440) and staircases ($16,100). ASPIRA approved the invoices totaling $77,165 on Sept. 15, 2011.
In October, Lyon submitted two more invoices totaling $42,000 for painting the gym. Both were paid immediately.
On Nov. 21, 2011, Lyon billed ASPIRA $7,300 for "Prep and painting of the fifth-floor hallway at Olney, painting of the walls to match the lower floor hallways and painting of the staircase leading to the fifth floor."
Three sources who worked at Olney in 2011 said the school's fifth floor has been closed off since the school opened as a charter because the area is a dusty, dirty area with a warning sign. "DO NOT ENTER, Danger Asbestos, Cancer and Lung disease hazard. Authorized Personnel only."
On another invoice dated Nov. 21, Lyon billed ASPIRA $22,600 for "Prep and painting of all staircases from the first floor to the fourth floor." Both the November invoices were paid.
Nowhere to be found
The Daily News tried to reach Lyon Contracting, but the phone number was no longer in service.
Lyon's incorporation filing lists Margaret/Margarita Labrador as its main officer and an address on Torresdale Avenue near Howell Street in Wissinoming.
The Lyon invoices submitted for work at Olney, however, list a Northern Liberties address on 3rd Street near Fairmount Avenue, Suite 209.
The property owner of that address told the Daily News that he was unfamiliar with the names Margaret Labrador and Lyon Contracting. Also, according to property records and the owner, the units are identified by a single digit. Suite 209 does not exist.
Efforts to reach Labrador and her husband, Daniel, who is a painter, were unsuccessful.
But school employees say the situation smells. "It's fishy," said one Olney crew member.