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How a Philly charter school benefits Local 98

Fifteen years on, a charter school founded by John J. Dougherty, business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the union, has fallen short of its goals.

John Dougherty , poweful head of the electricians union.
John Dougherty , poweful head of the electricians union.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

In 2002, labor leader John J. Dougherty championed a new charter school whose goals included guiding more minority workers into his overwhelmingly white union.

In its founding documents, Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter High School committed, in part, to providing students the skills needed for "participation in the apprenticeship program offered to qualified individuals by Local 98."

Fifteen years on, it appears the school, founded by Dougherty, business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the union, has fallen short.

The school, where 71 percent of its 620 students are African American, has no record of any graduates entering Local 98's apprentice training program.

But the school has done better by Dougherty, becoming a job bank for family members and friends of the powerful Democrat known as "Johnny Doc" and providing members — and taxpayer-covered dues — for his union. Dougherty did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

In its favor, the charter boosts an above-average graduation rate and a significant number of graduates going on to college. It seems on track for a charter renewal by the School Reform Commission.

The school at 1420-22 Chestnut St. has drawn the scrutiny of federal prosecutors as part of a broad investigation of Dougherty and his union. When federal agents searched Local 98's headquarters last August, the list of items sought included financial records of the charter school.

An Inquirer/Daily News examination of the charter showed it to be another corner of Dougherty's sphere of influence.
For instance:
• Daughter Erin Dougherty, 36, earns $115,000 as the school's CEO.
• George Fiocca III, 31, who handles development and directs the school's tutoring center, is a son of Dougherty's sister Maureen Fiocca. He is paid $59,265.
• Cecelia Dougherty, Dougherty's wife, served as a board member before stepping down from the unpaid post in July 2014.
• Michael Neill, director of Local 98's apprentice training program, was part of the school's founding group and is vice president of the charter's board.
• State Reps. William F. Keller (D., Phila.) and Michael J. Driscoll (D., Phila.), who have received support from Local 98, are on the charter board.

Erin Dougherty, who held a variety of posts at the school before being named CEO in 2014, would not allow a reporter to visit the school in the spring and declined to be interviewed.

"Philadelphia E&T Charter High School had a few difficult years during the most recent charter term, both academically and fiscally," she said in a statement. "The Board of Trustees acknowledged those hardships head-on and committed to ensuring the viability and sustainability of the school."

She said the school had completed an academic turnaround.

Pennsylvania law allows charter-school teachers to be represented by unions. Unlike other city charters, where staffers pay 1 percent of their salaries to an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, employees at Philadelphia E&T belong to Local 98.

And salaries at Philadelphia E&T — which are paid by taxpayers — are inflated by 3 percent to cover Local 98 dues. The approach is described as a "3-percent union dues gross-up" in the union contract that expires Aug. 31.

The union's representation of the teachers creates an interesting dynamic, given that the school was founded by Local 98 and union officials and politicians with close ties to the union sit on the board.

Richard Hurd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University, said it was "not totally out of the ordinary" for Local 98 to represent charter employees as blue-collar unions have been making inroads representing white-collar workers for some time.

But Hurd said that Philadelphia E&T's relationship with Local 98 was complicated and could cause tensions because union people were on both sides of the negotiations.

"I think it is somewhat of a unique case," he said. "Normally, the employees of a union are represented by a different union."

The teachers at Philadelphia E&T also have individual, one-year contracts that don't provide the job security typical of teacher contracts.

After the charter board named Erin Dougherty CEO in July 2014, she reorganized the staff, required employees to reapply for their jobs, and cut 14 positions, including classroom teachers.

In a statement, she said the changes were part of "a new organizational structure" to improve operations. The statement said the charter staff had "elected" to be represented by Local 98 in 2002.

The current three-year contract with Local 98 was signed by Charles M. Gibbs, a Center City lawyer who is president of the charter board, and union rep Matthew Pooler, who directs the charter's co-op program.

Pooler, who once taught remedial math in Local 98's apprentice-training program, was part of the charter's founding coalition with Dougherty, Neill, and Erin Dougherty.

An upside to holding a Local 98 union card, teachers have found, is that the health benefits are better than those offered by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The staffers contribute nothing toward premiums for their medical, dental, and vision coverage. Under terms of the Local 98 contract signed in 2014, the school pays at least $314 per week for each full-time employee to Local 98's Sound and Communications Health and Welfare Fund.

Records show the charter is now paying at least $960,000 per year for health benefits for 50 unionized employees. That represents 13 percent of the school's $7.5 million annual budget.

While it is difficult to compare Philadelphia E&T's health-care expenses with other charter schools, an analysis of financial reports that schools are required to file with the state shows that the average charter spent 18.5 percent of its budget on employee benefits, including pension contributions, in 2014-15.

At Philadelphia E&T, benefits accounted for nearly 30 percent of the budget.
A Pennsylvania School Boards Association report found on average charters in the state spent nearly 55 percent of their budgets on instruction in 2014-15. Philadelphia E&T spent 48 percent on instruction that year.

The charter application that John Dougherty submitted to the Board of Education in 2000 said: "The IBEW education program is designed to provide high school students with the tools to successfully meet the rigorous new technology demands in employment, further and higher education, and/or participation in the apprenticeship program offered to qualified individuals by Local 98."

Six years after the school opened, Dougherty told an Inquirer columnist that he was committed to diversifying a union that was largely white and that Philadelphia E&T grads were able to go straight into the union's apprenticeship program.

In response to a Right-to-Know request asking the number of grads who had entered the Local 98 apprentice program, Philadelphia E&T said: “There is not a record of this information.”

Now, the school says its mission is developing students "who will be employable in the emerging high-tech industries; while giving students a strong foundation in the core academic subjects."

The school's 91 percent four-year graduation rate is better than the averages for charter or district high schools.

The profile on Philadelphia E&T's website said 49 percent of its grads head to four-year colleges, 34 percent to two-year colleges, 6.5 percent to trade and technical schools, 8.5 percent to the workforce, and 2 percent enter the military.

According to the school district, only 43 percent of the charter's grads actually enroll in two- or four-year schools the fall after they graduate.

Philadelphia E&T's charter is up for renewal. The district's charter school office has recommended the SRC approve a new, five-year agreement with conditions.

A charter office report outlined some academic and financial shortcomings, including poor performance on state biology exams, failing to make some payments to the state teachers' pension system, and submitting annual audits late.

At a SRC meeting last month, Erin Dougherty said the deficiencies "were largely that of human error, atypical scenarios but not deliberate, reoccurring, or … systematic."

She said the school was working to resolve concerns.

She said Philadelphia E&T was proud of its record.

"Preparing students for post-secondary success," she said, "is what sets our school apart."