Controversy still dogs Philadelphia Academy Charter School

Barbara BeninCasa and John Sanabor hand parents fliers in support of Philadelphia Academic Charter School chief executive Larry Sperling.
Barbara BeninCasa and John Sanabor hand parents fliers in support of Philadelphia Academic Charter School chief executive Larry Sperling. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 07, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Six years after a Northeast Philadelphia charter school was roiled by allegations of financial mismanagement and nepotism, it is in turmoil again.

Five board members at Philadelphia Academy Charter School have resigned since three new parent-members joined last summer.

Reports that new board members do not plan to renew the contract of chief executive Larry Sperling - whom many credit with helping save the school in 2008 - prompted supporters to create a "Keep Larry Sperling" Facebook page and distribute fliers, and stirred high school students at the K-12 school to circulate petitions on his behalf.

There are complaints of stagnating academics at the high school, questions over whether the previous board had too many members, and allegations that the current board violated the state's Open Meeting Law by choosing officers in private.

"The school is lucky to be open, and now to have this," said John Sanabor, who has circulated fliers outside PACS's high school, where his youngest son, Luke, is a sophomore.

"The school has come a long way, a long way," said Barbara BeninCasa, who on Friday joined Sanabor in giving fliers to parents dropping children off at the high school. "We have concerns."

John McGrody, one of the three new parent representatives on the board, declined to discuss Sperling's status because it is a personnel matter.

"It's an internal issue that we're dealing with as to the CEO's contract," said McGrody, who became board president last fall. "When action is taken, it will be at a public session of the board of trustees."

He dismissed allegations that officers were chosen in secret, saying the action occurred at October's public meeting.

"We're trying to do the right thing," said McGrody, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5. "It is absolutely my belief this is one of the best schools in the city."

Sperling said he was trying to stay out of the fray.

"There seems to be a little bit of tension between the current board and other parents," he said.

"I'm trying to work with the board president," Sperling said. "Things are going well. I don't think something like this should cast a pall over our daily operations."

Sperling, 61, declined further comment.

According to the charter school's nonprofit tax filing, Sperling's salary was $185,603 for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, with an additional $30,000 in benefits. His two-year contract ends June 30.

The latest chapter

Philadelphia Academy has 1,120 students at an elementary school at 11000 Roosevelt Blvd. and a high school at 1700 Tomlinson Rd., and a budget of more than $17 million.

The controversy is the latest chapter in the saga of a school that helped trigger federal investigations into 20 local charter schools.

Although parents have prized the school's academics and safety since it opened in 1999, its reputation was tarnished in April 2008 when The Inquirer reported allegations of fiscal mismanagement and nepotism, and an investigation by the school district's inspector general.

The Inquirer found that a web of business interests enabled the school's founding CEO, Brien Gardiner, and Kevin O'Shea, his handpicked successor, to be paid more than most area superintendents. In 2005-06, Gardiner was paid a total of $224,500 for his work at PACS and Northwood Academy; O'Shea $206,137.

To obtain a new charter, the School Reform Commission required the school to replace its chief executive, remove its board, and make other changes.

Dismayed

O'Shea and Rosemary DiLacqua, a former board president, later pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and went to prison. Gardiner committed suicide in May 2009, shortly before the federal charges were announced.

Sperling, who had been the chief academic officer, became CEO in May 2008. Patrick Milligan, who had five children at PACS, became the new board president.

The school stabilized, and its academics and financial management improved. The board took steps to end the secrecy that had shrouded the school's operations and encouraged parents to speak at monthly meetings.

Milligan, who stepped down as board president in April 2012, says he is dismayed by the latest wrangle.

"I think this is about the current board members trying to improve the school's academics and asking the difficult questions of the administration and trying to move the school forward," said Milligan, who serves on the school's Parent Advisory Council.

He said the school meets state academic standards only because of the scores from the elementary school; the high school would never measure up on its own. But when some parents and board members expressed concern about the number of students who leave after eighth grade to attend high school elsewhere, Milligan said Sperling was defensive. "He doesn't respond well to criticism," Milligan said.

Milligan and other parents noted that Sanabor and BeninCasa, the most vocal critics of the current board and leaders of the Save Sperling campaign, are parents who lost elections last spring to join the board.

Sanabor and BeninCasa dismissed the notion that they were acting because they were unsuccessful candidates.

"That has nothing to do with it," BeninCasa said.

Sanabor, who has proposed videotaping board meetings and posting them on the school's website, said he was alarmed that five board members have resigned since July.

"It seems very hush-hush," he said. "Even when I asked questions."

McGrody said the board, which has lost members "for a variety of reasons," now had three parent representatives.

Two of the five board members who resigned cited personal or health reasons.

Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters, who preceded McGrody as president, left last fall amid reports he was among five city judges whose campaign records had been subpoenaed by the FBI.

Stephen Young, an administrator at Holy Family University, last week declined to say why he left last month.

Marsha Spak, the founder of Parents Involved, a nonprofit group, left the board after February's meeting.

"I just didn't feel comfortable with what was happening with the board," she said in an interview. "It had nothing to do with the administration. I'm a Larry fan."

She would not detail her concerns about the board but added: "I hope the parents will iron out any problems they feel they have."


martha.woodall@phillynews.com215-854-2789

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