Outsider candidate with insider friends?

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, who may run for mayor, sends his kids to Penn Alexander School but lives outside its catchment area.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, who may run for mayor, sends his kids to Penn Alexander School but lives outside its catchment area.
Posted: January 28, 2014

APPEALING TO those who want an "outsider" candidate to run for mayor in 2015, Bright Hope Baptist Pastor Kevin R. Johnson generated a lot of buzz earlier this month when he told the Daily News that he's exploring a run.

Johnson, a political neophyte who moved to Philly seven years ago, seemed a refreshing change from the typical political insider with friends in high places.

Not so fast.

Like Mayor Nutter in his 2007 campaign, Johnson emphasized in an interview that he is a public-school parent. But the school he refers to is the K-8 Penn Alexander School, one of the district's most prestigious schools. It is also supposed to serve only students who live in West Philadelphia's Spruce Hill section.

The pastor lives in Overbrook, about four miles outside Penn Alexander's catchment area.

So, how'd his three kids end up there?

Friends in high places, multiple sources told the Daily News.

Johnson was close with former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, a member and trustee of his North Philly church. When she died last February, Ackerman's sons asked Johnson to deliver the eulogy at her funeral in Albuquerque, N.M. The pastor also eulogized her at a local memorial service.

In years past, district honchos were given discretion to make admission exceptions for "an extenuating circumstance . . . that's for the well-being and safety of the child," said district spokesman Fernando Gallard, who stressed that he did not know the specifics of the Johnson case. "It clearly looks like superintendents in the past used the exception for students to enter Penn Alexander."

Current superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has not used this privilege, Gallard said.

In an email statement last week, Johnson declined to discuss how his kids got into Penn Alexander, saying that he and his wife "take the responsibility of being parents very seriously, especially in ensuring that our children are safe and secure. . . . We are parents first whose primary job is to ensure they are protected and remain safe."

The appearance of the Rev. Johnson receiving special treatment could make it more difficult for him to cast himself as an "outsider" candidate, said Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, policy director for the government watchdog Committee of Seventy.

"This is the kind of thing that makes people distrustful, when people of influence use their connections to get special treatment, especially with something important as where your kids go to school," she said. "That sticks in people's craw."

Penn Alexander's 550-student enrollment includes 34 students living outside the catchment, according to the school district.

Among them, sources say, is the grandson of former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson. That boy, and two of his siblings who graduated from Penn Alexander, live on the same block as the pastor's family. Their father, FBI agent Mark A. Johnson, did not respond to requests for comment.

In both of these cases, the children live in the catchment area for Overbrook Elementary and Beeber Middle School.

To attend Penn Alexander School, which receives extra funding through a special arrangement with the University of Pennsylvania, the first rule is simple: You must live in the school's catchment area.

"It was a directive from the district to take these kids," a source familiar with the case told the Daily News.

"Voluntary transfer papers were approved and made it possible for the children to enroll in the school," the source said. The school's principal, Sheila Sydnor, "didn't have any choice once the voluntary papers were signed."

Ackerman was superintendent when Kevin Johnson's two older children registered for school. The youngest registered in 2012, after Ackerman left the district. The district did not have a superintendent in place when the youngest of his children was registered. Thomas Knudsen was then chief recovery officer, the highest ranking district official.

Only superintendents could use the discretion to place a child in a particular school, Gallard said.

Efforts to reach Knudsen were unsuccessful.

Registration at the high-performing school used to be a first-come-first-served line outside the school, on Spruce Street near 42nd. When parents from the catchment area began to form the line days before registration began, the district implemented a lottery system.

There are waiting lists for each grade.

The district won't pull any children who live outside the catchment area because they are part of the school community and officials don't want to disrupt their lives, Gallard said. But in the future, the district will allow only families living inside the Penn Alexander boundaries to attend the school, he added.


On Twitter: @ReginaMedina

Online: ph.ly/DNEducation

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