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Connections, Savvy Give Some Community Groups a Head Start On School Contracts

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When Gov. Mark S. Schweiker unveiled his proposal to overhaul this city's schools, he tapped six local nonprofit organizations as "potential community partners" in the state's landmark takeover effort.

While the newly formed School Reform Commission has yet to select the community groups that will work with for-profit education-management companies to run clusters of low- performing schools, the governor's nod to those six groups could give them an edge on their competition.

The community partners are potentially key players in the Philadelphia takeover drama, which will turn both district services and many of the city's 264 public schools over to private management.

But how did Nueva Esperanza, Germantown Settlement, the Overbrook Educational Development Corp., Universal Companies, and others emerge on the state's list of community partners?

Some of the reasons the groups were suggested seem fairly transparent.

Two of the organizations on the Republican governor's A-list are led by Democratic state lawmakers, Rep. Dwight Evans and Sen. Anthony H. Williams, who were vocal supporters of the state takeover. In addition, they backed Pennsylvania's charter school law and have founded their own charter schools.

Observers say their obvious political pull likely helped them get a spot in the governor's proposal.

"It feels like they're giving out schools in exchange for votes," contended Shelly Yanoff, the executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, a local advocacy group fighting the state takeover. "I don't believe we should be cherry-picking around kids and schools."

While it may appear that the governor's endorsement makes the six groups shoe-ins to become community partners, that might not be the case.

Carey Dearnley, a spokeswoman for the reform commission, which supplanted the district school board, said the governor's initial takeover report has been scrapped and the five-member commission will make the final decisions.

Two of the community organizations also have direct ties to Edison Schools Inc., the nation's largest for-profit manager of public schools, which is vying for contracts to run district operations as well as a number of schools. Edison also won a $2.7 million contract from the state last fall to review district operations; its study became the basis of Gov. Schweiker's takeover plan.

Marshall Mitchell, the founding director of the Overbrook Educational Development Corp., is a former vice president of Edison. Mr. Mitchell also was the chief of staff for the Rev. Floyd Flake, now a senior executive with Edison, when Mr. Flake was a Democratic member of Congress from New York City.

Meanwhile, Universal Companies, founded by record producer Kenneth Gamble, was forging a business partnership with Edison last year prior to the state takeover.

The partnership with Universal, which operates an extensive community-development network, including a charter school, was put on hold when it became clear that the state would take control of the district.

Universal also conducted a citywide report seeking to gauge the community's opinions about Philadelphia's public schools. The report was completed in conjunction with Edison's review of the school system for the state.

More than 2,700 residents participated in forums, focus groups, individual interviews, or the surveys. Jeremiah White, Universal's executive vice president, said that report helped identify nonprofit organizations that had the wherewithal to become community partners. For example, five of the six groups are affiliated with charter schools they have either founded or currently operate.

Others took the initiative to make their intentions known. Nueva Esperanza got in touch with the governor's office to say the group was willing to manage schools in the Hispanic neighborhoods of Northeast Philadelphia, said the Rev. Luis A. Cortés Jr., the Hispanic community-development organization's president.

Gretchen Toner, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said state officials did not recruit community partners. "I don't think we had to," she added.

The political leanings of the organizations aren't as simple as documenting party affiliations. Mr. Evans, the Democratic state representative, is often singled out nationally as one of the first African-American lawmakers to support school choice. Mr. Gamble of Universal addressed the Republican National Convention in 2000 about urban renewal.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cortés proudly displays photographs of himself with President Bush and others with former President Clinton. A registered Independent, he said: "I don't care who you are. If you have power, I want to know you."

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