Posted on Wed, Apr. 16, 2008

Philadelphia Academy CEO demoted amid probe

By Martha Woodall
Inquirer Staff Writer

The CEO of Philadelphia Academy Charter School has been demoted and the school's academic leader named acting chief while the charter's board investigates allegations of financial mismanagement at the school.

Rosemary DiLacqua, president of the kindergarten-through-12th-grade charter in Northeast Philadelphia, said yesterday that chief executive officer Kevin M. O'Shea would return temporarily to his previous post of operations director. Larry Sperling, the school's top academic leader, has been named acting CEO. Brien N. Gardiner, who founded the school in 1999, will remain as a consultant.

DiLacqua did not say whether O'Shea would take a cut in his $206,137 CEO's pay. When O'Shea held the operations director job two years ago, his salary was $102,700.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote this afternoon whether to authorize Philadelphia Academy and 15 other city charter schools to continue operating for five more years.

The district's charter school office has recommended authorizing Philadelphia Academy to continue operating "with conditions." The school has 1,200 students in buildings at 11000 Roosevelt Blvd. and 1700 Tomlinson Rd.

DiLacqua, who had declined previous interview requests, said yesterday that the administrative changes were approved at an emergency board meeting Thursday night after The Inquirer began asking questions about the management and financial operations and the day before had faxed and hand-delivered letters to O'Shea, Gardiner and DiLacqua, seeking comments on topics that would be covered in an article about the school's administrative and fiscal practices.

"We're very, very troubled by the problems that are alleged in [yesterday's] article," DiLacqua said in a brief telephone interview.

DiLacqua has signed up to speak at the meeting, as have several concerned parents who pressed the district in December to investigate the charter school's operations.

As The Inquirer reported yesterday, the school district's inspector general is investigating the school on allegations of fiscal mismanagement, excessive administrators' salaries, nepotism, and conflicts of interest involving companies Gardiner created.

A web of charter and business entities enabled Gardiner and O'Shea to earn more than most school superintendents in the region.

Gardiner collected a total of $224,500 in salaries in 2005-06 from Philadelphia Academy and Northwood Academy, another charter he opened. In addition, he received $70,000 from a nonprofit he established to provide special-education services.

In the same year, O'Shea received $102,700 as director of operations, and he and his wife received an additional $144,000 from Gardiner's nonprofit.

In all, the Gardiner and the O'Shea families took home $541,200 in salaries from the charters and related companies in 2005-06. The next year, they collected at least $494,120.

"We know the school district is conducting their investigation," DiLacqua said. "We are conducting one as well. We want answers, and we intend to get answers. In the interim, we want to make sure we continue on our mission as laid out 10 years ago to create the very best for our students, our parents and taxpayers."

Although the charter board makes the major decisions affecting the school's operations, including hiring the top administrators, DiLacqua declined to comment further, pending the outcome of the board's inquiry. The charter board has hired an independent attorney to handle it, she said.

The parents who urged the district to look into the school said they became alarmed when they learned in the fall that Gardiner had retired in 2006 and that the board had quietly installed O'Shea in his place.

O'Shea, a former city police officer with a high school diploma, was paid $206,137 as CEO during the 2006-07 academic year, according to payroll records.

DiLacqua said Philadelphia Academy's board had pledged to cooperate with district investigators. The School Reform Commission on Friday authorized a comprehensive financial audit of the charter.

Members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, issued a statement blasting the charter school's leaders for using public money as "their personal piggy bank and hiring hall instead of spending taxpayers' money on children and in classrooms as the state charter school law intended." Jordan noted that the district gives charter schools $300 million per year.

"Money wasted on bureaucracy and 'super-sized' charter school administrative salaries deprives every student in the city of valuable educational resources - including small classes, modern schools, libraries, counselors, nurses and music, art and other vital programs."

Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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