The cochair of the state Senate Education Committee yesterday called on the Philadelphia School District to immediately close a West Philadelphia charter school and relocate its students following news reports that a nightclub operates in the building after school hours.
Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin) said he learned that a bar operates inside the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School from 6ABC news reports over the weekend.
By day, children come to the building to attend the charter school. On weekend nights, the cafeteria turns into Club Damani, city officials said.
"How a school could serve alcohol on its premises is beyond me," Piccola said. "As policymakers, we have spent a vast amount of time and energy on improving the learning environment for our children. Having a school double as a bar flies in the face of those efforts and is an absolute disgrace."
He called on the district to close the charter at 640 N. 66th St. and relocate its 500 elementary students.
Last night, the School District announced that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had sent a letter to the operators of the charter school that said she found unacceptable its reported practice of leasing space in a building where a club serves liquor.
The letter says a school and a nightclub cannot exist in the same building and the practice must cease immediately, said Fernando Gallard, district spokesman.
He added that the district was working with the city to investigate the allegations and would visit the building. "If this building is being used inappropriately and endangers the well-being of children, we will take immediate action to find an appropriate facility," Gallard said.
Harambee officials did not return phone calls yesterday. However, they posted an open letter to the school community on the Harambee Web site charging that recent coverage had "misrepresented" the school. "This attack on Harambee Charter School is a biased depiction of the true success story that Harambee truly is," said the letter from Masai Skief, the charter's chief executive officer.
He described Harambee as "a cornerstone in the neighborhood" that hosts and facilitates community events and provides "a safe and suitable environment that promotes student achievement."
Skief's letter says, "We cannot allow slanderous and inaccurate allegations to impede our success and define who we are. The Harambee family is a resilient group. We will meet adversity once again and come out on top."
Harambee, which opened in 1997, was one of the first charter schools approved in the city. Its operating charter is up for renewal next year.
Local and state authorities said a liquor license for a club at the 66th Street address was granted long before the charter school moved into the building.
Francesa Chapman, a spokeswoman for the Liquor Control Board, said the board awarded a license in 1936 to what was then the Overbrook Italian American Democratic Club. Ultimately, she said, the license was transferred in 2002 to Harambee Institute Inc., a nonprofit affiliated with the charter school.
"When the premises is already licensed, our board doesn't have standing to refuse a transfer," she said.
Kevin Covington, who was president of the charter school board in 2002, wrote a letter to the LCB supporting the license transfer.
"The school board recognizes the existence of the social club near its school and has no objection to its operation," Covington said in the letter. "The club is not and will not operate during school hours. The club will, however, operate during the evening hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, after the school week has concluded."
Chapman said the license permitting the sale of alcohol expired Oct. 31, 2008.
Officials from the Department of Licenses and Inspections and the Liquor Control Enforcement Division of the state police jointly investigated the club on Saturday and found no alcohol being sold.
"We put them on notice that their catering-club license had expired and that they do not have authority to dispense alcohol for sale," Sgt. William LaTorre said.
L&I found several violations at the club. Maura Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the city, said the club lacked a business privilege license, a special assembly occupancy license, and necessary health licenses for serving food. The club has been given a deadline of April 10 to comply.
When Piccola learned that the liquor license predated the charter school, he questioned the School District's oversight.
"In that case, the School District would bear some responsibility," he said. "They have to do their own due diligence in investigating the physical plant."
Piccola said he would amend a bill he has introduced overhauling the state's 1997 charter school law making it illegal to consume, buy, or sell alcoholic beverages in a charter school building. The legislation would give the state education secretary the power to impose harsh penalties on charter schools that violate the provision, including fines of at least $5,000 for the first violation.
He said the Harambee case shows why his legislation includes a provision that would establish a charter-school office in Harrisburg with authority to investigate complaints of fraud and financial mismanagement.
That office, Piccola said, would make sure school districts exercise more oversight over the charter schools they have approved.
Harvey Rice, first deputy city controller, said City Controller Alan Butkovitz had become aware of the bar at Harambee while his office was reviewing some city charter schools' operations. He said neighbors had complained about parking and trash.
"The community has been really up in arms about this," Rice said.
Harambee Institute has met the academic benchmarks of the federal No Child Left Behind law for the last few years. During the last school year, 49 percent of fifth graders scored on grade level in math and 45 percent in reading.