Dwight Evans Chooses Philly Patronage Over School Success

Markman report shows city business as usual

The reaction to Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman’s report that exposed the backroom politics surrounding the fight for control of a failing Philadelphia high school speaks volumes about the state of the city.

State Rep. Dwight Evans defended his heavy-handed tactics, which forced a for-profit charter school operator to walk away from a lucrative contract to run Martin Luther King Jr. High. Former School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie, a well-connected lawyer who has enriched himself through government bond work, chalked it up to Philly politics. Give Archie credit for this much: He at least explained to the out-of-town executive that “Philadelphia does not operate by the usual rules.”

That’s an understatement.

The fact that Evans and Archie saw nothing wrong with their outrageous actions cuts to the heart of what is wrong with Philadelphia. This was not a one-off event, but rather is a window into daily political life in a city long known as corrupt and content. Most cities don’t operate this way. But Philadelphia remains a throwback built on patronage and contracts. Friends and family trump excellence and fiscal responsibility. Accountability? Not so much.

Scandals erupt, like at the PHA, DRPA, BRT, Sheriff’s Office and Family Court. A person or two may get eased aside, but the culture rarely changes. It remains business as usual. Your tax dollars barely at work. The upshot: Small business owners and middle-class families leave in frustration. But what about influential business leaders who have a vested interest in seeing the city succeed? Many of them are too afraid or too busy feeding at the public trough.

Forget the chamber of commerce. It’s run by a former state representative who few could name. Before that it was an accidental ex-governor who was paid big bucks and did what exactly? The secret to success here is go along if you want to get along. Rock the boat? Sorry, it’s a no-wake zone.

The same goes for the Philadelphia School District. That helps explain why taxpayers spend $3 billion a year and in return get schools rife with violence and a dropout rate of about 40 percent. There is no accountability. Just rewards for insiders who play the game.

That is really what drove Evans. He’s a longtime insider who expected the MLK contract to go to his handpicked nonprofit, not some out-of-towners he didn’t know. It’s all part of the grand plan for his Northwest Philly fief, which he runs like the board game Risk.

Evans and Archie said their actions were aimed at helping the children. Gather round kids, here’s the rest of that civics lesson: Evans was also intent on steering a contract—worth about $10 million a year—to his longtime cronies at Foundations Inc. That nonprofit has contributed to Evans and received contracts for services at MLK since 2002. The school is among the worst in the city. If this was about the kids, why hire a nonprofit that has been part of the problem?

Even more troubling was the reaction from several City Council members who shrugged off the episode as normal give and take. Happens all the time. Welcome to Philadelphia, pal.

Never mind that the for-profit operator was threatened and bullied during the meeting with Evans and Archie. He left the meeting so shaken he canceled the lucrative contract the next day. Current acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery arranged the sit-down and later said it was like a scene from The Godfather. Evans and Archie made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Councilwoman Marian Tasco’s reaction: “What’s wrong with that?” Councilman James Kenney offered a passionate defense of Evans’s great work over the years. That may have been true 15 years ago. But that Dwight Evans is long gone.

The fact that Nunery went behind his boss’s back, arranged the secret meeting, and didn’t object to the strong-arm tactics he witnessed, says a lot about the person who wants to be superintendent. It would probably disqualify him at any other school district. But he’s perfect for Philly.

The other amazing thing is that Evans and Archie managed to make Ackerman appear sympathetic. Her tenure was marked by arrogance and racial divisiveness, while she mismanaged the school district to a $630 million deficit that required a property-tax hike to bail it out. All of that was acceptable and actually got her bonuses and a contract extension. But Ackerman’s inability to master Philly politics did her in.

Yes, the rules are different here.

Paul Davies spent 25 years in the newspaper business, including stops at the Daily News, the Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]