Phila. Ethics Board fines school improvement group

Posted: May 24, 2014

The Board of Ethics announced its first enforcement action under the city's lobbying ordinance Thursday, fining the Philadelphia School Partnership $1,500 for an 18-month delay in registering as a lobbying organization and filing required financial disclosures.

The partnership, a nonprofit that has raised millions with a goal of improving public, private, and charter schools, signed a settlement agreeing to pay the fine and to file reports outlining its 2012 and 2013 lobbying costs.

In a statement, the partnership said it was initially unaware that the city's definition of lobbying activity was broader than those used by the state and federal governments.

"In consultation with the Ethics Board, we came to better understand the requirements of the new law," the statement said in part. It also said some of the activities in question "were publicly known" when they occurred.

The group, known as PSP, cited a January 2012 trip for which it paid $5,800 for transportation and lodging for Mayor Nutter, then-School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos, and three others to look at Denver's work to decentralize school administration and improve relations between public and charter schools.

The trip occurred two days after the law took effect, and PSP said it was unaware at the time that the new disclosure requirements applied.

The Ethics Board action grew out of a 150-page complaint filed last year by the group Parents United for Public Schools, contending PSP's actions on several fronts constituted lobbying and required detailed disclosures of contact with public officials and any expenditures involved. After looking into the complaint, the board essentially agreed.

Parents United believes "a lot of public policy around education is being shaped out of the public eye," said Helen Gym, its cofounder. "We're also concerned about the role of big money shaping our education policies."

Attached to the settlement were spreadsheets outlining about $35,000 PSP spent on lobbying in 2012 and 2013.

It also listed its largest funders - including the William Penn Foundation, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, securities trader Jeffrey Yass, businessman and PSP cofounder Michael O'Neill, the Maguire Foundation, and the Patricia Kind Foundation.

PSP has raised about $65 million since its founding in 2010 and has spent about $31 million on projects such as school building improvements, staff training, and technology, all aimed at "creation and expansion of high-quality schools in Philadelphia," spokeswoman Kristen Forbriger said.

So far, she estimated, about half the funding has gone to charters, 40 percent to public schools, and 10 percent to private schools



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