Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Two city charters probed over CEO's pay

Pennsylvania's retirement system is investigating two Philadelphia charter schools because state records show their chief executive holds two full-time jobs that together pay her more than $331,000 a year.

D. June Hairston Brown defended her work hours.
D. June Hairston Brown defended her work hours.Read more

Pennsylvania's retirement system is investigating two Philadelphia charter schools because state records show their chief executive holds two full-time jobs that together pay her more than $331,000 a year.

An auditor for the Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System asked the Philadelphia School District two weeks ago to document the duties and work schedules of the executive, D. June Hairston Brown, and three other employees, all listed as working two full-time jobs at the two charters.

Brown, whose Laboratory and Ad Prima Charter Schools enroll 672 elementary students, makes more than any other charter operator in Philadelphia, records show. By comparison, Arlene Ackerman will receive $325,000 to run the 170,000-student Philadelphia district when she arrives next month. Paul Vallas was paid $275,000.

State records show Brown was paid $331,701 as chief executive at the two schools for 2006-07 - $187,978 from Laboratory and $143,723 from Ad Prima.

Brown said she was unaware of the state's inquiry. She said that neither she nor the other employees claimed to work two full-time jobs, and that they divided their time between the schools.

"I work hard for this seven days a week until 11 at night," said Brown, a former district principal and administrator who opened Laboratory first, in 1998, and is now involved in three other charters and a private school. She said she was proud that Laboratory had won state and national academic honors for its test scores.

"There is no one in this city that works harder than I do for children," Brown said.

The state auditor sent a letter to the district asking for help after failing to get an answer from Brown, said Catherine Balsley, administrator in the district's charter-school office. She said her office had no information about charter-employee work schedules.

According to a copy of the letter obtained by The Inquirer, the state wants daily work schedules beginning with the 2004-05 school year for Brown; Anthony Smoot, business manager; Michael Keith Gifford, maintenance; and Antonia McJett, nurse.

Brown said no one at her charter schools' administrative office had received the letter. "If they have sent us a letter, we are not aware of it," she said.

"I don't know how they determine full time," she said. "I know we send forms to PSERS. Maybe they just made the assumption."

A spokeswoman for the retirement system said it did not confirm or comment on investigations.

In defending her salary, Brown noted Laboratory's high performance. On state tests in 2007, Laboratory scored among the highest in the state in fifth-grade math and reading.

She said she also was proud that many of Laboratory's eighth-grade graduates earned scholarships to top private schools in the region.

But Phil Goldsmith, the district's interim chief executive in 2000 and 2001, called Brown's $331,701 salary "obscene."

"If someone is getting that amount of money for a few schools, it belies what this is about," Goldsmith said. "This is taxpayer money. I just think it's wrong."

He added, "I earned $170,000 when I was CEO of the school district for 14 months, and I tried to manage 264 schools."

Tim Daniels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, said the association did not comment on individual charter-school salaries.

"The association takes no view other than supporting the concept of charter-school accountability," he said.

For 2005-06, the charters reported in IRS tax filings that Brown worked 30 hours a week at Laboratory for $186,927 and 20 hours a week at Ad Prima for $108,554 for a total of $295,481. In addition, she reported earning $177,000 as executive director of Main Line Academy, a private special-education school in Bala Cynwyd.

Laboratory enrolls 498 elementary students on campuses in Northern Liberties and West Philadelphia. Ad Prima, in Overbrook, has 174 students from kindergarten through fourth grade.

Brown also receives an unspecified amount for consulting with two other schools.

Nonprofit tax reports show that Brown reported working five hours a week in 2006-07 as a consultant to the Agora Cyber Charter School, which she founded. That school, which offers online instruction to about 3,000 students in their homes, was launched in fall 2006 and is based in Tredyffrin.

She also opened the Planet Abacus Charter School, an elementary charter in the Northeast, in the fall. The school has yet to file an annual report with the district or the state.

Brown said that amid continuing district and internal investigations at the Philadelphia Academy Charter School in the Northeast, Brien N. Gardiner, its founder, had ended his business relationship with her.

Albert S. Dandridge III, Gardiner's attorney, said he told Brown on May 1 that Gardiner was severing his ties to Cynwyd Group L.L.C., a company he and Brown founded in late 2005.

In November, Cynwyd Group paid $1.9 million to buy a property at 60 Chestnut Ave. in Tredyffrin, which houses the headquarters of the Agora Cyber Charter School.

Dandridge declined to comment further other than to say he did not know of any other business ties between Gardiner and Brown, who have known each other since both worked as district administrators many years ago.

Brown said she had asked Gardiner to serve as a consultant to the cyber school.

Philadelphia Academy's board last week ended Gardiner's consulting contract and fired Kevin M. O'Shea, the school's former CEO, after the board's attorneys found evidence that Gardiner and O'Shea had used school money for personal purposes.

Both have also come under fire for their salaries, which were higher than those of most area school superintendents.

O'Shea was paid $206,137 when he was CEO of Philadelphia Academy in 2006-07. Gardiner received $224,500 the previous year when he ran that charter and Northwood Academy, another Northeast charter school.

The district has yet to report on its investigation of Philadelphia Academy, which began after the school refused to supply requested documents as part of the district's review on whether to renew the school's charter for five years.

Last month, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission delayed a vote on extending Philadelphia Academy's charter to give the district's inspector general time to complete his inquiry.

The vote came a day after The Inquirer detailed allegations of nepotism, mismanagement and conflicts of interest.