Brien Gardiner, charter-school pioneer under federal investigation, commits suicide

By MENSAH M. DEAN
Philadelphia Daily News

deanm@phillynews.com 215-854-5949

BRIEN N. GARDINER, the former darling of Philadelphia's charter-school movement who fell from grace amid a financial scandal, shot himself to death yesterday afternoon in the parking lot of a SEPTA regional-rail station, police in Montgomery County said last night.

"There was a suicide, and there is going to be a press release [today] at 8:30 a.m.," Sgt. Scott Smith, of the Lower Moreland Township police, said.

Lower Moreland Chief Pete Hasson confirmed that Gardiner died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound shortly before 1:30 p.m. in the parking lot of the Bethayres train station.

The embattled Gardiner, 63, was the subject of an active federal probe related to his management of Philadelphia Academy Charter School, the Northeast Philly school he founded in 1999.

The kindergarten through 12th grade school - with its lower grades located on Roosevelt Boulevard and its high school on Tomlinson Road - won quick praise from parents and school officials for its special-education instruction and strong state test scores.

Paul Vallas, former district chief executive officer, often cited Gardiner and his school as shining examples in the city's growing charter-school community.

"Paul respected him and thought very highly of him," said Joe Lyons, a district spokesman from 2004 to 2005. "Brien had a high school that was successful, and Paul liked that.

"I didn't really work with Brien, but I knew him by reputation, and his reputation was good," added Lyons, communications director for the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School.

"Definitely a tragic situation," Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, said of Gardiner's passing.

"When I came into the charter-school movement, he was one of the first people that I met," said Jones, who is also chief executive officer of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School. "Everybody knew him.

"He was a pioneer and a contributor, especially in the early years of the charter-school movement," Jones said.

In 2005, Gardiner opened a second school, Northwood Academy Charter, on Castor Avenue, and served as its first chief executive.

Last year allegations surfaced that Gardiner, of Huntingdon Valley, was giving jobs to relatives and was using his schools to enrich himself through various business arrangements.

The feds and Jack Downs, the district's inspector general, are investigating the allegations.

Gardiner, who was no longer employed by either school, had not been charged with any crime.

One year ago today, the Inquirer reported that Gardiner had a $108,000-a-year consulting agreement with Camelot Schools of Pennsylvania, which has a multimillion-dollar contract with the district to operate three schools.

That fee was in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars that Gardiner had collected from companies tied to Philadelphia Academy Charter School, the paper reported.

Last year, Philadelphia Academy's board complied with a host of conditions made by the School Reform Commission last year that were meant to prevent the type of financial and management issues that led to Gardiner's ouster.

Charter schools are approved by local school districts, which fund them, but are operated as independent schools. That independence is part of what has helped the city's charter-school community to grow from four schools in 1997 to 63 schools today. Six new charters have been approved to open in September.

A small but growing number of the schools, however, have become entangled in scandals of their operators' making. In addition to Gardiner's situation, the most serious to date are those at Germantown Settlement Charter and Renaissance Charter.

The district cited both schools for numerous financial and academic infractions, and has been given permission from the state to shut them down by the end of next month. This will mark the first time that the district will have shut down charter schools.

Jones said that he did not want to speculate as to whether Gardiner's suicide was prompted by the investigation.

"At this point in time this has nothing to do with the charter-school community," he said.

"I don't think any of us will ever know why someone would take this drastic, violent step. My only concern is with his family."

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