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William Penn Foundation bankrolling $160,000 communications campaign for District

By Benjamin Herold on Jul 24, 2012 07:00 AM

By Benjamin Herold for the Notebook/NewsWorks

The William Penn Foundation has paid more than  $160,000 for work being done by two private communications firms to support the School Reform Commission’s much-debated  “transformation blueprint.”

It's just one of several efforts undertaken by the city's civic leaders on behalf of the cash-strapped District that was revealed by a review of William Penn's recent grants.

The organizations doing the communications work, Sage Communications and the Bravo Group, are being paid through William Penn funds that have been passed through the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, respectively.  Each grant was for $82,500, the maximum allowable without the approval of William Penn’s board, which meets three times a year.

“We funded people to work with the District to tell their story,” said William Penn Foundation president Jeremy Nowak in an interview Thursday.

To date, said Nowak, the total paid by William Penn for communications efforts “would be in the hundred-and-sixty to hundred-and-eighty thousand dollar range.”

In a separate effort, the Bravo Group also worked under a direct contract with the Chamber to lobby state officials on issues of concern to the SRC -- including help facilitating the massive borrowing the District plans in order to help close a $282 million budget gap for this fiscal year. 

"It was lobbying for the Chamber, which has an ongoing interest in our not going insolvent," stressed SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos.

And in a third instance of the complicated web of relationships between the District and the city's civic sector, William Penn also gave the United Way a separate pot of $82,500 this spring.

That money, it turns out, was used to help staff a previously undisclosed “ethics task force” that is preparing recommendations for the SRC that are expected to be made public this fall.

It's all part of the brave new world created by a struggling School District that must rely on outside help to navigate its seemingly endless financial crisis.

In April, the SRC unveiled a controversial proposal to overhaul the cash-strapped District by closing more than 60 schools and reorganizing those left into independent “achievement networks,” some of which would be privately managed. The “blueprint,” developed with heavy input from outside management consultants from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), has generated fierce opposition from organized labor and some student, parent, and community groups.

William Penn directly contributed $1.5 million and helped raise at least $1.2 million more to support BCG’s work.  All that money was also passed through the United Way. A report summarizing the blue-chip consulting firm’s analyses and recommendations is expected to be made public later this week. 

Details of William Penn’s financial support for related communications support and other efforts had not been previously disclosed. Because the District is not a party in the contracts, the School Reform Commission did not have to publicly vote to approve the work.

Ramos defended the use of outside communications support, citing the sharply reduced capacity of the District’s internal communications office and the complexity of the District’s budget problems and restructuring proposals.

“The District [has been] in a crisis, trying to act with urgency to solve problems,” he said.

“In the process of acting with urgency, we were not effectively communicating how [the proposed reforms] are about getting resources to students.”

‘Not unusual at all’

The pass-through grant to the United Way for Sage Communications was made in early April of this year. Sage co-founder and partner Sharon Gallagher said her firm was nearing completion of a far-ranging scope of work.

“We’ll be wrapping up within the week,” Gallagher said.

Sage’s job, she said, was “pretty much to try to explain the role of BCG.”  It involved “a little bit of everything,” including strategic planning, writing press releases, communicating with City Council during budget hearings, and help with the release of the “transformation blueprint.”

Though William Penn was the original source of payment for Sage’s work, said Gallagher, the firm submitted its invoices to the United Way and was directed in its day-to-day work by District Chief of Communications Fernando Gallard, SRC Chief of Staff Loree Jones, and by Andrew Rachlin, chief of staff to District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen.

Gallagher said the arrangement was “not unusual at all” for her firm, which works primarily with foundations and nonprofit organizations.

“Foundations always hire outside communications firms to work with [their] grantees,” Gallagher said.

In contrast to Sage, the Bravo Group works with a wide range of clients, including large corporations. The firm also engages in lobbying and government relations work, helping businesses and organizations to “establish ties to – and deal effectively with – policymakers at all levels of government,” according to the group’s website.

Whereas Sage primarily provided “day-to-day help,” said Ramos, the Bravo Group will serve as a “resource for advice and strategy.”

The Bravo Group's William Penn-funded work has been to "support the communications effort for the District," said Chris Bravacos, the firm's president and CEO.

But the Bravo Group also worked during May and June of this year to lobby "on behalf of issues the Chamber cared about for the SRC and the School District," he said.

That included help with the state building authority, from whom the District hopes to borrow over $200 million dollars this year so it can balance its budget. It also worked with state legislators around a provision of then-pending charter school legislation that would have "wreaked havoc" on the District's finances, said Ramos.

A spokesman for William Penn stressed that the foundation is not supporting any lobbying efforts, which are specifically forbidden in its grants. 

Bravacos is a board member of the Philadelphia School Partnership, which recently received a $15 million grant from William Penn.  A prominent political lobbyist and fundraiser, he formerly served as the executive director of the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania and as deputy secretary for legislative affairs under former Gov. Tom Ridge.

The pass-through grant to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce Regional Foundation for the Bravo Group was made at the end of June. 

William Penn’s Nowak stressed that he is not overseeing the communications work for which his foundation is paying.

“I make sure it’s accountable the way that somebody that oversees a contract would because it’s our money there.  But we do not direct the work,” said Nowak. 

In a cover story earlier this month, the Philadelphia City Paper portrayed Nowak as the driving force in a coordinated effort to dismantle the District, citing a May meeting involving Nowak, Ramos, Gallagher of Sage Communications, and unnamed “pro-charter-school activists” to discuss a media plan in support of the District’s “transformation blueprint.”

In interviews for this story, Nowak, Ramos and Gallagher all confirmed their participation in a meeting like the one described in City Paper. Nowak said he could not recall everyone who was in attendance, while Ramos would say only that he “didn’t necessarily know everyone who was going to be there in advance.”

Ramos, Nowak and Gallagher all disputed City Paper’s characterization of the meeting as part of an orchestrated behind-the-scenes campaign.

“It’s a fantasy,” said Ramos.

“The reality is [we're] managing a crisis.  You’re asking for help and collaboration and trying to get any support you can when you need it, and that’s what gets lost here.”

A new ethics task force

In addition to receiving communications support from outside firms, the District has also been the indirect beneficiary of a third grant made by William Penn in recent months. 

At the end of June, the foundation gave the United Way $82,500 to support the work of United Way associate vice president for education Diane Castelbuono. A former state deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education and the former associate superintendent in charge of the District’s charter and turnaround schools, Castelbuono has been staffing a previously undisclosed “ethics task force” working on behalf of the District and SRC.

“It’s looking at all of the [ethics-related] policies, processes and procedures” in the District, said United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania president and CEO Jill Michal.

The nine-person task force, which is being chaired by Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Ida K. Chen, was initiated in response to a request from SRC Chairman Ramos.

“I thought it should be an independent effort,” said Ramos, who stressed that the task force is not setting policy.

“They’ll come, present findings and proposals, and it becomes a [public] policy process from there,” he said.

The group’s report is expected to be made public in September or October.

The William Penn grant to the United Way for Castelbuono’s time is also retroactively paying for her work to coordinate the community engagement effort surrounding the SRC’s recently completed search for a new superintendent.

Despite concerns from some that the flurry of outside support is giving third parties undue influence over the future of the District, Ramos said he would remain committed to re-engaging leaders from Philadelphia’s philanthropic, business and civic communities who have been turned off by the District’s recent woes.

“I’m going to do everything I can to rebuild those relationships on behalf of the School District,” said Ramos, “and I’m not going to apologize for it.”

Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation is a major funder of the Notebook.

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Comments (23)

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on July 23, 2012 5:19 pm

I find it beyond reason to fund a PR campaign for the BCG plan. The public did not take to it. Gleason's "Silent majority" didn't have the impact they thought it would. Even the Inky editorial staff has come out questioning this route. There wasn't much of plan except to close District schools and increase charters anyway.

Doesn't the Office of Communication have better things to do like promote the Philly's Got Talent event or how to find language translation services?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 23, 2012 6:40 pm

Hopefully, the tide is beginning to turn. Corbett should be in jail for lots of things, not least of which is the Sandusky matter. This whole thing stinks and people need to start to get loud in their anger against being marginalized by these cretins who only care about making money off the kids.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 24, 2012 6:30 pm

"Money Talks, bullshit walks," Joey Coyle circa 1985. Ethics, my ass !!!!

Submitted by anon (not verified) on July 24, 2012 6:36 pm

not sure about joey coyle, but ozzie myers was famously quoted saying that on tape in abscam investigation five years earlier.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 24, 2012 7:53 pm

Joey said it, Ozzie may have too. The Mob was not amused at Joey because he implied he was connected which was farcical. Ozzie was a million times classier than Joey but both were warts on the ass of life to quote one, Nicodemo Scarfo.

Submitted by anon (not verified) on July 24, 2012 7:17 pm

and more from city paper and daniel denvir posted 7/24

Submitted by anon (not verified) on July 24, 2012 7:15 pm

re: city paper:
sorry, i meant citypaper.
keep up the great expose reporting.

Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on July 23, 2012 5:53 pm

If these jackals can't get people on board their final solution without fancy PR firms, maybe there is hope for us yet.

Submitted by tom-104 on July 23, 2012 8:25 pm

$160,000 for a "communications campaign"? All they are trying to do is spin (i.e. lie) about the true nature of their "reform"? Truth and justice do not need "spin". People are wising up to the scam being perpetrated on the students, their families and the School District employees. This is a right-wing created fiscal crisis created to try and privatize public schools for the greed of a few. No amount of money can cover that up.

This "communications campaign" is just like the ads you see all over the media for charter schools touting how great they are. At the same time charter schools resist any kind of transparency and use the fiscal starvation of the public schools by politicians to claim they are better. These ads are paid for with taxpayer dollars, something public schools cannot do because they are struggling just to provide the basics of education on their starvation budgets!

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on July 23, 2012 8:38 pm

I cannot quite wrap my mind around all this: We pay an outside consulting firm to come up with a school plan that most people who know schools and education cannot believe in, THEN they pay an outside PR ("communications") firm to try and make everyone like it!? Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?

Submitted by Brian Cohen (not verified) on July 23, 2012 8:58 pm

It seems strange to me that any group would spend money on a PR campaign that could be used to actually help kids directly. Use the money on something more worthwhile, please! This will only demoralize teachers and students more.

Submitted by anon (not verified) on July 23, 2012 8:30 pm

meanwhile from today's jerry jordan op-ed piece:
"This script can be read as either horror or comedy. Frighteningly (or hilariously), though, this is reality."
yo jerry! no one is laughing - least of all the union members drifting rudderless under your "leadership". whoever wrote your speech has a tin ear when it comes to timing. didn't you guys get the memo? superhero movie metaphors are not cool right now.
"This fall, I hope we'll be ready to leave multimillion-dollar charter school expansion schemes behind and have more reality-based discussions about what students really need from our schools.
seriously dude, you're just going to wait till fall and hope the SRC miraculously comes around to your way of thinking? not in the cards. you've got to step it up a couple of notches.
the man doth protest too little, methinks.

Submitted by Joan Taylor on July 23, 2012 10:19 pm

$160,000 for PR! I'd like someone to connect all the dots. How are the recipients of this PR money connected politically? Who gets a tax write off for contributing to this shadow United Way fund? And how much of this charter money incidentally gets funneled to them and theirs at the end of this process?

How can we get our hands on these figures? And then how to we verify that the figures we are given are honest?

I am thinking of the Inquirer article today about the Delaware Valley High School, a charter program which claimed to be paying teachers 45K a year--before "furloughing" all of its teachers, but which actually paid them 36k--or 31k if they wanted benefits. There's a 9k difference between what the charter is claiming to pay and what it is actually putting out. Where does that 9k go? This is a charter whose leader David Shulick is connected to both Corbett and Rendell--talk about feeding at the trough--and which employs Chaka Fattah's son.

I am sure there are some straight up, true to their mission charters out there...but there sure is a lot of money going to the fat cats as well. The David Shulicks are not isolated cases in the world of education for profit; they are the norm. The avarice of such men and their supporters would be more palatable if it weren't wrapped in sanctimonious nonsense about rescuing the city of Philadelphia.

160,000 dollars for PR.



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 24, 2012 9:42 am

Delaware Valley High School is a private alternative school. There is a Delaware Valley Charter School located on Broad Street, they are separate institutions. In addition, at the May SRC Meeting Ben Wright who is Deputy of Alternative Schools admitted to not sending out RFP's for Alternative school contracts for 2012/2013. Therefore the SRC voted to renew one year contracts for existing alternative school service providers. The district committed to RFPing next years contracts. But like Charter Schools, there seems to be a lack of accountability for contracted services.

Submitted by tom-104 on July 23, 2012 10:07 pm

From the article: "Bravacos (who received $82,500 for "communications") is a board member of the Philadelphia School Partnership, which recently received a $15 million grant from William Penn. A prominent political lobbyist and fundraiser, he formerly served as the executive director of the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania and as Deputy Secretary for Legislative Affairs under former Governor Tom Ridge."

Remember Ridge, the guy who orchestrated the state takeover, tried to turn 64 schools over to Edison Schools, and set up the SRC? This is a plan ten years in the making.

Look at the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia School Partnership!

One of its organizations funded by William Penn is the Great Schools Compact headed by Mark Gleason. It's Compact Committee is made up of:

Lawrence Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School
Dr. Naomi Johnson-Booker, CEO of Global Leadership Academy
David Rossi, CEO of Nueva Esperanza Academy
Dr. Leroy Nunery, Special Advisor, School District of Philadelphia
Pedro Ramos, Chairman of the School Reform Commission
Joe Dworetzky, Commissioner, School Reform Commission
Dr. Lori Shorr, Chief Education Officer, Mayor’s Office for Education
Michael Wilson, Special Assistant to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education

Nonvoting members include:
Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools
Mark Gleason, Executive Director of the Philadelphia School Partnership
Penny Nixon, Chief Academic Officer, School District of Philadelphia

Is it any wonder all of the money is going to charters? All of them are making big bucks with this scam!

Submitted by Stephen R. Flemming (not verified) on July 23, 2012 10:37 pm

So I read this article and saw numbers like $160,00, $82,500*3 $1.5 million, $1.2 million, and $15 million. Just one quick question and I'll be out of your hair (for now). It's about that $100 allottment that teachers get for supplies-----you know what? Nevermind, I thought of quite a few more questions…

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on July 24, 2012 7:11 pm

Seriously, $160,000 for PR when the District is virtually insolvent?! Think of all the school supplies that money could buy.

Submitted by Seth Kulick on July 25, 2012 4:56 pm

If these organizations want to support the BCG plan, shouldn't the first step be to release the plan?

May 31:

At the stormy SRC meeting on May 31, Chairman Pedro Ramos, responding to pointed questioning, said that the SRC had asked BCG to “synthesize and compile” their “analytical work” and present it “in a way that can be useful.”

That work to prepare documents for public release is now underway and will be done in about 30 days, wrote Gallard.

July 7:

The consultants began work in the district this winter, but none of their findings have been made public. Haas said that BCG's analysis and recommendations, due in a few days, will be "fully transparent."

July 23:
Herold:  I understand that the Boston Consulting Group looked at the charter question and the issue of high-performing seats, trying to get at the heart of whether you’re creating new high-performing seats, or just shifting kids from one high-performing seat to another.
Nowak: I don’t want to say anything about what will come out because that will come out, and you’ll see it. Again, we were partially responsible for funding it, but not what is in there. I think a lot of people, when it comes out, will be surprised, because I think some people have put them all in the perspective of being only pro-charter. And I think you’ll find, when it comes out, that it is a much more complicated picture.

“In the process of acting with urgency, we were not effectively communicating how [the proposed reforms] are about getting resources to students.”

So release the report! What could be simpler?Just scan it or whatever and put the pdfs on line. You don't need $160,000 to do that. We can read. But maybe we're not "smart" enough, as Jill Michal would say, and it has to be put into a form which is "useful" for us.

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on July 25, 2012 5:51 pm

Thank you for compiling these articles/links.

Reminds me of...

"We can never know about the things to come
But we think about them anyway....
Anticipation, anticipation
Is making me late
Is keeping me waiting..."

Submitted by Peter Public (not verified) on July 27, 2012 3:39 pm


Submitted by Peter Public (not verified) on July 27, 2012 3:56 pm

that all these efforts are being made while City Council does not obviously have the same level of influence.

Submitted by Marc (not verified) on October 9, 2012 8:31 am

Interesting how these people have like infinite resources.

Submitted by Cyber Monday coach 2013 sale (not verified) on November 22, 2013 6:46 am
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