Parents want a say in their charter

Mark and Gosla Still with son Zbyszek, 9. Mark Still organized a meeting of parents seeking the exit of school founder Dorothy June Brown and others facing federal charges. (Tom Gralish/Staff)
Mark and Gosla Still with son Zbyszek, 9. Mark Still organized a meeting of parents seeking the exit of school founder Dorothy June Brown and others facing federal charges. (Tom Gralish/Staff)

Planet Abacus officials were indicted over finances. Parents seek accountability.

Posted: August 13, 2012

A little more than two weeks after a federal grand jury indicted the founder and the chief executive of the Planet Abacus Charter School in Tacony, parents are working to ensure the school survives.

Online and in person, members of the fledgling Planet Abacus Parent Advisory Board are circulating a petition demanding to have a say in the school's operations. They also are calling on founder Dorothy June Brown, Planet Abacus CEO Joan Woods Chalker, and three other defendants to remove themselves from the operations of the charter schools Brown founded.

"We demand that parents be active in financial and program oversight," said Mark Still, who organized a parents' meeting Thursday night and drafted a petition based on the group's suggestions.

Once signatures are gathered, Still wants parents to hand-deliver the document to Brown at her offices in Bala Cynwyd and to present it to the Philadelphia School District, which oversees city charter schools.

"We demand that parents work hand-in-glove with teachers and administration for the good of our children, for the good of our school," said Still, whose son will begin fourth grade next month. "It is our belief that with strength of numbers . . . we will be heard and respected."

Some members are trying to contact parents at Brown's two other charters in the city and encourage them to join. The three charters have an enrollment of about 1,030 students.

Charter parents said they were stunned to learn of the indictment from news accounts and complained that they had had difficulty getting answers about their schools.

The sole communication from Planet Abacus, parents said, was a brief note on the school website that said: "Be assured that Planet Abacus will be opening for the 2012-2013 school year" on Sept. 7, as scheduled. "Events recently reported online and in the newspapers will have no effect on the existence of the school or the quality of the program. Both will continue unchanged under the direction of our excellent staff."

The brief letter was signed "June Brown, founder" and "Joan Chalker, CEO."

Thursday night, as traffic rumbled on nearby I-95, nine parents gathered on a sidewalk near St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church on Keystone Street. They expressed outrage that Brown allegedly took money from the school that could have been used for technology or air-conditioning so children would not be sent home early on hot days.

Parents arrived on the darkening street singly or in pairs. At first, they eyed one another warily. There is no active parents group at Planet Abacus. They said administrators had rebuffed parents' previous efforts to get involved.

Many families, they said, are afraid of challenging Brown. They know she filed a defamation suit in 2009 against parents from the Agora Cyber Charter School who questioned a management contract Agora had with a firm Brown owned.

One woman said she was too frightened to give her name or to sign the draft petition for fear of retaliation against her child.

"People are scared," said Noel Bauman, who has three sons at Planet Abacus. "But we need to have more parents involved. There is no reason for us to be scared."

She later wrote on Facebook: "There is no guarantee that everything is going to be OK, but if we show our support and stand up for our kids there is a better chance!"

The group said Brown's involvement in the day-to-day operations became more apparent after Robert Bonner, the school's popular site director, left without warning in the fall.

"We saw all the problems that were going on here, and they pooh-poohed our concerns," Ron Bauman said. "Then you have the indictment."

On July 24, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger announced that Brown, Chalker, and three other charter administrators had been charged with defrauding three charter schools of more than $6.5 million. The 62-count indictment contains allegations of wire fraud, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and witness tampering.

Brown, Chalker, and the others have pleaded not guilty.

A former district principal, Brown founded Planet Abacus and two other K-8 charters in Philadelphia: Laboratory, which has campuses in Northern Liberties, Overbrook, and Wynnefield; and Ad Prima in Overbrook and Frankford.

Planet Abacus, Laboratory, and Ad Prima have all won accolades for academic performance. Ad Prima parents said they loved their children's school and credited the teachers.

In 2005, Brown helped create Agora, which provides online in-home instruction to students from across the state. Four years later, she severed all ties with Agora to settle several civil suits.

Brown also founded Main Line Academy, a private special-education school in Bala Cynwyd. The business offices of Brown's three city charter schools are at Main Line.

Planet Abacus is housed in St. Leo's former elementary school at 6660 Keystone St. The charter pays rent to Brown's Main Line Academy, which bought the property from St. Leo's for $1.4 million in 2008, city records show.

The Planet Abacus parents' petition calls on Brown, Chalker, and the other defendants to step aside from the schools' day-to-day operations. "To do less would be a severe conflict of interest," the group said.

The group also is asking for full disclosure of the charter school's income and expenses; for the parents' board to have financial oversight and involvement in school operations. The parents want an immediate upgrade of technology, so the school can fulfill the mission in its charter, and for Bonner to return as site director.

The group expects to hold another meeting Thursday.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission was scheduled this summer to consider new, five-year operating charters for Laboratory and Planet Abacus. The day the indictment was announced, Michael Davis, the district's general counsel, said the renewals would be "placed on hold" while the district reviewed the indictment. Michael A. Schwartz, a lawyer at Pepper Hamilton and a former federal prosecutor, is investigating the allegations and will advise future action.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the investigation was continuing.


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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