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Overbrook High School.jpg

Students pass though a stairwell at Overbrook High School. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Did Philadelphia school officials try to hand over one of their neighborhood high schools to a charter operator?

That’s one of the eyebrow-raising accusations hurled by a Philadelphia charter school leader, who says district officials repeatedly misled her while dangling a series of under-the-table offers.

That charter leader, Naomi Johnson-Booker of Global Leadership Academy in West Philadelphia, says the district offered her the opportunity to run Overbrook High School or William Sayre High School as an alternative to granting a charter for her own, competitor high school.

Johnson-Booker’s description of events, if true, would represent the kind of backroom deal in which the district says it doesn’t participate.

But that’s a big if because district officials deny this offer every happened. And they deny another one of Johnson-Booker’s claims, that she was promised a new high school in exchange for agreeing, in 2016, to take over a struggling district elementary school.

A saga that started as an expansion request by Global Leadership Academy (GLA) has morphed into an atypical airing of grievances. The accuser, in this case, is a longtime city educator and charter-school leader who is among the best known — and best paid — charter executives in Philadelphia.

Johnson-Booker says there’s no documented proof of the claims she’s making because the promises took place informally, during phone and in-person conversations. District officials say there’s no proof because the claims aren’t true.

Someone is lying — either an educator with decades of experience in local schools or a district charter office that’s worked hard to develop an improving reputation for transparency.

Or maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Without strict rules governing all interactions in the high-stakes charter expansion universe, one former member of the School Reform Commission explained, a “benign suggestion” can too easily be interpreted as a “heavy-handed threat” or a “quid pro quo.”

Charter schools in Philadelphia now educate more than 60,000 students or one-third of the city’s enrollment. The city contains half the charter schools in the state, and officials contend that the vintage 1997 charter funding formula stresses district finances to the breaking point. They say it creates a zero-sum game of fewer dollars for district schools every time a new charter opens. Charters, meanwhile, contend that the formula shortchanges their students. 

But the Pennsylvania General Assembly has repeatedly punted on efforts to revise the law and the formula. This and disagreement over the scope of the charter office’s oversight authority has created, at times, a contentious, adversarial relationship between charter operators and the district where there is little if any trust. This controversy lays that bare.

‘Take over … one of their failing schools’

Global Leadership Academy’s claims burst into public view at a school board meeting last month, when Johnson-Booker and other GLA backers railed against the school board’s Charter Schools Office in a volley of public comments. The charter school and its backers say the school’s 125 eighth graders deserve a smooth transition into high school, and that GLA can provide that bridge.

But the roots of the dispute go back years.

Global Leadership Academy, located on West Girard Avenue, got its initial charter in 2000, making it one of the oldest in the city. Johnson-Booker, who spent nearly 40 years as a teacher and administrator with the school district, switched to the charter sector and became GLA’s CEO in 2006.

GLA serves grades K-8 but has long coveted an expansion that would allow it to serve high school students. It sought a charter expansion in 2014 and a new charter high school in 2016, but the district, then governed by the School Reform Commission, rejected GLA’s applications.

During that same period, the district expanded its “Renaissance Schools” initiative. Through this program, the district turned low-performing neighborhood schools over to charter operators with hopes that new management could improve school climate and performance.

GLA became a Renaissance operator in 2016 when it took over Samuel B. Huey Elementary, a K-8 school at 52nd and Pine streets in West Philadelphia. It is now known as Global Leadership Academy Southwest.

Johnson-Booker says the Huey takeover was a “horrendous situation” that hurt her charter organization financially.

“We sunk a million bucks, over a million bucks, in the school to try and make it safe,” said Johnson-Booker. “And it’s still a problem.”

Johnson-Booker characterizes the Huey takeover as a favor to the district and says it came with an implicit promise: that the district would eventually green-light GLA’s proposal for a high school.

Johnson-Booker does not claim staffers then in the Charter Schools Office directly promised her a future charter approval, only that they “impli[ed] … that you’re doing us a favor.”

Buoyed by that alleged implication, GLA asked for an amendment this year that would allow its original, K-8 school to become a K-12 school.

The Charter Schools Office did not recommend approval of that amendment request, much to Johnson-Booker’s chagrin. She views it as a broken promise, but that’s not the only twist in this tale, Johnson-Booker says.

While applying for those extra grades, Johnson-Booker claims, district officials proposed a sort of compromise.

Johnson-Booker claims the head of the Charter Schools Office, Christina Grant, called her in the first week of June and asked if GLA would be willing to “take over” one of the district’s high schools.

“It was not ambiguous,” Johnson-Booker said. “It was specific.”

Grant did not specify which school, only that they would be high schools in West Philadelphia, Johnson-Booker says. She believes Grant was referring to either William Sayre High School or Overbrook High School.

Both schools have seen enrollment slump in recent years, despite proud histories. Overbrook once graduated the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Will Smith, but now enrolls just 485 students in a castle-like structure that can hold 2,500.

“They asked me to take over one of their schools, one of their failing schools,” said Johnson-Booker. “I’m not taking over one of their failing schools.”

Johnson-Booker said Grant’s offer came with a promise that graduating eighth graders from Global Leadership Academy would have the opportunity to attend whichever district school GLA operated. That prospect didn’t appeal to Johnson-Booker.

“I would be inheriting your problems and taking my children with me to your problems,” she said. “No, I’m not doing that.”

Johnson-Booker says she was stunned by the request.

“I left my office and went to my staff and said, ‘Would you believe what she just said to me?’ ” Johnson-Booker said. “I’m good enough to take over one of your failing schools, but not good enough to have my own?”

Naomi Wyatt, chief of staff to District Superintendent William Hite, made a similar overture to Johnson-Booker on June 7 during an in-person conversation, the charter leader said. Again, Johnson-Booker claims she rebuffed the offer.

She says Wyatt specifically mentioned the prospect of GLA running Sayre during the conversation.

District denies it made an offer

If district officials made these promises, it would have been notable on two fronts.

For starters, it’s been three years since the district sought to turn over a district school to a charter company. The Renaissance Schools program has been in hibernation — without much explanation as to why from district officials.

Second, district and charter office officials don’t have the explicit power to hand over management of district schools. Those decisions must be made by the Board of Education.

On that point, school board chairwoman Joyce Wilkerson agrees.

“The charter school office has no authority to run around making a lot of promises,” said Wilkerson.

But she also doesn’t think the charter school office made overtures like the ones Johnson-Booker described.

“We’re trying to operate a transparent operation here. And I have confidence in our charter school’s office,” Wilkerson said.

Asked about Johnson-Booker’s claims, Christina Grant e-mailed a statement to WHYY.

“The Charter Schools Office does not talk about partnerships with District schools; respectfully this is not a conversation that I have had with Dr. Booker,” Grant wrote.

A spokeswoman declined WHYY’s request to interview Grant further on the topic.

Naomi Wyatt also sent a statement to WHYY denying Johnson-Booker’s claims.

“The School District of Philadelphia is committed to making sure all children have access to high-quality high school opportunities,” Wyatt said. “We have not asked Dr. Booker to run any of our high schools.”

Under Grant and former leader DawnLynne Kacer, Philadelphia’s Charter Schools Office has tried to clarify and standardize its process for renewing and approving charter schools. Some charter organizations have chafed at the district’s beefed-up oversight. But Wilkerson says it’s all in an attempt to be fair and transparent.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into trying to have clear policies, clear procedures,” said Wilkerson.

Former School Reform Commission member Farah Jimenez believes it’s better for the charter office to do things out in the open if only to avoid the implication of impropriety.

“What I learned during my tenure on the SRC is that, with so many interests at stake and so little trust, a benign suggestion or any attempt to socialize an idea could be too easily interpreted as a heavy-handed threat or a future promise of a quid pro quo,” Jimenez said.

“It certainly makes partnering and innovating more difficult when one can only express ideas through RFPs and resolutions. But it does keep things cleaner.”

Johnson-Booker’s portrayal seems to clash with the idea of a charter office run by protocol rather than politics.

Despite the district’s claims, “they have been doing backdoor deals,” she said. “Nobody talks about it, but I’m tired of not talking about it.”

Johnson-Booker believes Grant and Wyatt tried to offer her control of a district school because the district doesn’t want a new high school that could siphon more students from schools like Sayre and Overbrook.

She doesn’t believe her request for a 500-student high school would significantly impact enrollment at Sayre or Overbrook. But even if it did, she says, it would simply be further evidence that students aren’t interested in the district’s neighborhood high schools.

“Overbrook itself should be knocked down,” Johnson-Booker said. “Nobody wants that.”

Asked about the district’s denial of her account, Johnson-Booker was defiant.

“I’ll swear on a stack of bibles,” she said. “Why would I make it up?”

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.