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Philadelphia Academy investigated

A popular charter school faces a district investigation into how millions in tax funds were spent. The issue is accountability.

Many value Philadelphia Academy as safe and well-appointed. Investigators wonder if staff appointments were as well-managed. (Clem Murray / Inquirer)
Many value Philadelphia Academy as safe and well-appointed. Investigators wonder if staff appointments were as well-managed. (Clem Murray / Inquirer)Read more

As chief executive officer of Philadelphia Academy Charter School, Brien N. Gardiner took home a $164,500 salary in 2005-06 - more than most superintendents in the region made.

That same year, Gardiner collected an additional $60,000 as CEO of Northwood Academy, a second charter school, giving him a total salary of $224,500. The Philadelphia School District gave the schools a combined $14.6 million in taxpayer dollars to educate 1,700 students in kindergarten to 12th grade.

This fall, as Gardiner's educational empire in the Northeast grew, a small group of parents and district officials became concerned about the way Philadelphia Academy was being managed, including the hiring of administrators' family members.

They became even more alarmed when they learned that the school's board had quietly named Kevin O'Shea, a former city police officer with a high-school diploma, as CEO in 2006, and that he was drawing a salary of $206,137. Gardiner, a former district principal, is still a consultant for both schools, a school official confirmed.

With Philadelphia Academy's charter up for renewal at tomorrow's School Reform Commission meeting, the district's inspector general is investigating Gardiner's enterprise for possible fiscal mismanagement, nepotism, and conflicts of interest as Gardiner's charters pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to a company established by Gardiner himself.

The inquiry into Gardiner's charters spotlights complaints that critics have been making about charters for years: They get more and more tax dollars, yet they operate without the accountability or scrutiny imposed on traditional public schools.

Philadelphia Academy, a K-12 school with 1,200 students, is valued by parents for being a safe, clean school with well-equipped facilities and promising test scores. The charter is especially popular among families of firefighters, police officers, and other municipal employees required to live in the city. Gardiner's expertise in special education also attracts families.

The district was so impressed by Gardiner's program that it granted him a second charter in 2005 to open Northwood, an elementary school.

After Gardiner's retirement on July 1, 2006 - which parents say they were not told about - he remained on the Philadelphia Academy payroll for 90 days as CEO before turning the reins over to O'Shea, who at one time was an uncertified shop teacher at another charter school. O'Shea was paid $206,137, the charter's 2006-07 payroll records show.

By comparison, Paul Vallas, who was chief executive officer of the Philadelphia district, was paid $275,000 that year. The highest-paid principal in Philadelphia this year makes $135,812 for a full year.

Three other O'Shea family members collected salaries from Philadelphia Academy and another Gardiner company, Philadelphia Academy Services Inc., a nonprofit that Gardiner created to provide special education services to the district:

O'Shea's sister, Constance O'Shea, took in $103,633 as coordinator of the K-12 academy's elementary program.

O'Shea's daughter, Tara, collected $19,977 answering phones and working as an executive assistant.

O'Shea's wife, Jamie, received $110,000 as director of program operations from Philadelphia Academy Services Inc., according to the nonprofit's most recent tax filing.

In addition, Gardiner received $70,000 as president, and Kevin O'Shea $34,000 as vice president, of the nonprofit.

All told, Gardiner and the O'Sheas took home $541,200 in salaries from the charters and related companies in 2005-06. The next year, they collected at least $494,120.

This year, Philadelphia Academy Services has a $2.1 million contract with the district to serve 139 special-education children at five locations, including hospitals. The nonprofit does not have a contract with either charter.

If Gardiner seems to have gone out of his way to assist the O'Shea family, he applied the "can-do" attitude he is known for to his own compensation as well.

During the 2006-07 school year, when he was officially retired and collecting a $76,745-a-year state pension, Gardiner received $64,759 for 90 days' work as CEO of Philadelphia Academy, according to state pension records and the charter school's payroll.

The charter also made payments of $216,130 to an organization called Charter School Development Associates.

While officials at the Department of State in Harrisburg can find no record of such an entity in Pennsylvania, Gardiner identified himself as being affiliated with Charter Development Associates when he donated money to a City Council candidate last year. The affiliation was listed in campaign finance records and was confirmed in a school audit. Gardiner's other charter school, Northwood Academy, paid the company $86,044.

Charter officials permitted Inquirer reporters and a photographer to visit Philadelphia Academy last week to discuss the school's educational program with Larry Sperling, the chief academic officer. Sperling, a former district administrator, said he knew little about the charter's business operations.

Gardiner, O'Shea and board president Rosemary DiLacqua declined numerous written and oral requests to discuss the charter school's administrative and financial practices.

School representatives yesterday told teachers to write letters supporting Philadelphia Academy that were to be turned in to the school office this morning, parents said they were told by teachers.

The district began looking into the school's financial practices as part of its charter renewal process. That inquiry intensified in the last few months after several parents alleged mismanagement and the school failed to supply requested documents to the district.

Staff from the district's inspector general's office were denied access when they made an unannounced visit to Philadelphia Academy two weeks ago. The School Reform Commission Friday authorized investigators to begin a comprehensive audit.

Pennsylvania law leaves charter supervision to the school districts. LaVonne M. Sheffield, the district's chief accountability officer who oversees the charter office, said she knows questionable practices were allowed to develop after the first charters opened in 1997 because the district provided limited scrutiny.

The commission approved a stricter policy in December. Now, Sheffield said, her office is working with district lawyers to develop guidelines that will spell out what is legal, ethical and appropriate behavior, and what is not.

"These are still public schools," she said. "I have always been told that in public service, you have to be able to pass the smell test."

The district's charter office has recommended renewing Philadelphia Academy's charter for five more years with "some conditions." Sheffield and her staff declined to elaborate on them.

Academically, the school is one of the district's more successful charters, ranking fourth in 2007 on state standardized tests for fifth and eighth grades among 42 city charter schools with those grades. Among schools that have the same poverty level in the state, the charter ranks in the bottom fifth for fifth- and eighth-grade math and reading.

The school met 12 of the 13 criteria under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Special-education students missed the benchmark in math.

Based on Gardiner's extensive background in special education, the school has attracted a following among families with special-needs children. District officials say 29 percent of Philadelphia Academy's students receive special-education services, compared with 10 percent at most charters.

Due to the large number of special-education students, the school receives more money from the district than any of the other 60 city charter schools: $10.8 million during the 2006-07 year. The charter tuition rate then was $15,346 for each special-education student and $7,248 per student in regular education.

When state and federal funds are added, Philadelphia Academy's operating budget was close to $14 million in 2006, according to its annual report filed with the state Department of Education.

Lisa George, Megan Snyder Galo, and other parents say it was Gardiner's inclusive approach to special education that helped draw them to Philadelphia Academy in 1999, when it opened. News accounts at the time called Gardiner "a visionary."

"Brien had an incredible dream, and his dream was to make sure that every kid - especially kids with learning problems - had a place to go where they were safe," Galo said. She said he promised that those students would learn alongside other children.

But Galo, who has a son in ninth grade, and George, who has two children at Philadelphia Academy, were among parents who came to believe that while the charter was wonderful for children with severe impairments, it was not as effective for students with mild learning difficulties.

They began delving into the school's financial and management operations when they learned in the fall that Gardiner had retired and that the charter board had installed O'Shea.

O'Shea began his involvement with Philadelphia Academy as a parent volunteer, became board vice president, and later joined the staff as director of operations, earning $102,700 in 2005-06.

Galo and George say they were rebuffed and ridiculed by the charter board when they tried to raise questions at public board meetings. George said they were told to leave if they weren't happy at Philadelphia Academy.

Ultimately, the women pressed the district to investigate and testified before the School Reform Commission in December in favor of the new policy tightening district oversight of charters.

The women want the charter to be renewed but with an administrative overhaul.

"I don't know how in good conscience the charter can be renewed with the current administration and the board of directors," Galo said.

Not everyone agrees. Patty Zeitz, mother of a third grader, said most parents were thrilled with the school.

"There is not one thing wrong with it," she said. "There are so many parents that are upset by the negative comments."

Gardiner has applied to open another charter school - Oxford Academy Charter School - in the Northeast in the fall. The commission is expected to vote next month.