State Rep. Dwight Evans' efforts to keep Martin Luther King High School involved with a nonprofit education company with which he has a long-standing relationship failed this week when the company withdrew its bid to run the school as a charter.
Citing a climate of "unrelenting hostility," Foundations Inc. chief executive officer Rhonda H. Lauer, in a letter sent Wednesday to School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, said her organization was no longer interested in participating in the district's Renaissance school-reform plan.
"While we have applauded the district for undertaking the Renaissance process, we are deeply disappointed with the way it has unfolded," Lauer wrote in the letter, obtained by The Inquirer. "Rules seemed to evolve and shift in such a way that legitimate voices were excluded from the conversation and decision-making."
Foundations, a New Jersey nonprofit, became the second potential charter operator in a month to walk away from the low-performing East Germantown school.
The development came amid allegations of conflicts of interest and political wrangling involving Archie and Evans (D., Phila.) over the school's future. The school is adjacent to Evans' West Oak Lane district.
Based on the school's 1,100 students, a charter operator would receive about $10 million.
Mosaica Turnaround Partners, an Atlanta division of a for-profit education management company, withdrew its bid to run King on March 17, one day after the School Reform Commission voted, 3-0, to give King to Mosaica.
That decision followed the recommendation of a committee of King parents, staff, students, and community members who voted, 8-1, in favor of Mosaica over Foundations.
Archie said he abstained from the vote because the law firm where he is a partner, Duane Morris L.L.P.. had done work for Foundations.
Committee members said that they were impressed with Mosaica's program and that Foundations had not achieved enough success after seven years of providing services at King.
During the meeting, Evans voiced disappointment to the SRC and continued to argue in support of Foundations.
Immediately after the meeting, John Q. Porter, president of Mosaica's Turnaround division, was summoned to meet privately with Evans and Archie.
Porter went into the meeting planning to run King as a charter school. The next day, he announced that his company was withdrawing from King but would continue with plans to take over Birney School.
That meeting was first reported Tuesday night in a joint report by Public School Notebook and the WHYY web site NewsWorks.
Porter said Thursday that he did not want to comment on the specifics of his talks with Evans and Archie other than to say Evans' long-term education plans for Northwest Philadelphia were discussed.
"I want to stay out of this issue of the politics of Philadelphia," he said.
He added: "It was clear to me that there was a master plan for that area for a number of years, and we didn't want to stand in the way of the representative's plan."
He said Mosaica could not succeed at King "without the support of the whole community."
Archie said Thursday that neither he nor Evans pressured Mosaica to back out.
"At no time did Rep. Evans or myself ever ask [Porter] to pull out of being the operator at MLK," he said. "There was no acrimony."
He said he called the meeting of Evans, Porter, himself, and a district representative. The purpose, he said, was to try to get Evans and Porter to work together. Evans, he said, has a longtime involvement in education in the neighborhood.
"What I suggested was that perhaps you two can incorporate your plan for [the community] and your plan for turning around MLK School," he said. "I then suggested that since you tell me you have the support of the community, Mr. Evans, I think you, Mr. Porter, need that support of that community. You can't do it on an island. That was the purpose of the meeting, to bring both of them together."
Archie said he was not convinced that the advisory committee's support for Mosaica reflected the community's wishes.
But Evans, he said, shook Porter's hand at the meeting and told him, "You won it fair and square. I wish you luck."
Evans did not return calls seeking comment.
The next day, Porter phoned Ackerman and said he would send a letter saying Mosaica had decided to withdraw from King.
"She tried to convince me not to do that," Porter said.
District spokeswoman Jamilah Fraser said Ackerman was deeply disappointed that the school advisory committee had not received its first choice, Mosaica.
"She thought it was tragic," Fraser said.
Members of King's advisory committee were so upset by Mosaica's abrupt withdrawal that they asked Ackerman and the SRC last week to allow King to remain a district school next fall rather than be turned over to Foundations.
Several cheered Foundations' decision to bow out.
"I wish Foundations all the best," said Conchevia Washington, chairwoman of the school advisory committee. "I hope this was a learning lesson for them that politics and education do not necessarily mix well, and that you have to be careful which side of the fence you stand on."
"I think Foundations should back out," said committee member Valerie Johnson, parent of a 10th grader.
"With all the things that have happened, it would not look right and it would not be fair to the students, parents, and community members, and anybody else who has been involved in this process throughout."
With Mosaica and Foundations out of the process, King will remain a district school next year, Fraser said. That decision may require an SRC vote.
Next year, providers including Mosaica can again bid to operate it.
At least two committee members said they believed a state inquiry was needed to determine what happened at the closed-door meeting with Archie and Evans.
"I think it was tainted within the SRC," Johnson said. "They need to look into it."
Foundations has provided services to King for seven years under different oversight structures. Most recently, the district paid King up to $600,000 a year for student services that will continue through June 30.
Foundations' Lauer said King had advanced under her nonprofit's partnership. The school got off the state's "persistently dangerous" list in 2008-09 and has stayed off it. King's test scores, though low, have improved. In 2009-10, 22 percent of students were at grade level or higher in reading and 20 percent were in math.
The firm ran a jobs program, developed an urban farm, and focused services on the 27 percent of students in special education, Lauer said.
Although the process turned out differently than expected, Johnson and Wanda Lassiter, the school nurse at King who served on the advisory committee, said they were happy about the outcome.
"I think that the powers that be - meaning the SRC, the School District, the politicians, Dwight Evans, and Foundations - got a rude awakening," she said. "I don't think they thought they would run into the opposition they ran into" with the committee, she said. "Sometimes doing the right thing pays off, and in this instance it paid off."
She said her only regret was that the students at King will have to wait another year for real change and improvement at their school.