A source has told City&State that only a single bid – a joint application submitted by the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and the Philadelphia Health Management Corporation – has been received for a multimillion-dollar contract to manage the city’s expanded pre-K program, a hallmark of Mayor Jim Kenney’s 2015 campaign and subsequent administration.
The UAC is heavily connected to Democratic state representative-turned-presumptive Congressman Dwight Evans, whose support was crucial to Kenney’s election last year.
The coalition dominated headlines in 2012 for questions over its mismanagement of some $1.5 million worth of state grants awarded over a six-year timespan, which resulted in its being frozen out of state Department of Community and Economic Development grants at the time.
Jerry Varghese, director of the coalition’s economic development arm, said he had heard about the group’s application.
“I believe that might be true,” he said in a phone call, adding that he would reach out to UAC administrators for more information. The group declined to respond to further press inquiries.
The UAC/PHMC application would establish a new nonprofit called the “Philadelphia Universal Pre-K Partnership,” a source close to applicants said. According to a Request for Proposal (RFP) issued by the Mayor’s Office of Education, the intermediary organization will dole out around $23 million worth of funds from the recently authorized soda tax to a string of pre-K providers, including the School District of Philadelphia, beginning next year.
The RFP states that the selected nonprofit will be directly in charge of “administering the contracting process” of selecting providers.
PHMC is a less well-known group that principally handles contracts with the city’s Department of Human Services and is the largest provider of federally-subsidized Pre-K in the city, besides the city's school district. Notably, PHMC partnered with Universal Companies, a group tied to Kenney ally and record producer Kenny Gamble, in 2014 to manage health centers in eight charter schools that Gamble’s nonprofit operates. PHMC also applied in 2014 to run its own charter school.
Both groups have various political connections. Pat Eiding, head of the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO sits on the board of both groups. Former Councilwoman Marian Tasco serves on UAC’s board. Former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge and current Philadelphia Red Cross CEO Renée Cardwell Hughes, and former City of Philadelphia Managing Director Richard Negrin also sit on the PHMC board, according to the organization’s website.
PHMC did respond to a request for comment by press time.
Beverly Woods, a former director at the UAC, was also recently appointed to a $125,000-a-year spot in the Kenney administration. The group’s current director, Sharmain Matlock-Turner, long served as board president at a charter school founded by Evans and is a close friend of the state Rep. She was mentored by Tasco and worked with the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Committee – another troubled nonprofit with ties to Evans.
The Kenney administration declined to comment on the specifics of the bidding process, citing city regulations.
"Consistent with procurement policy, we do not announce details about bidders until after the award has been made," said Mayor’s Office of Education spokesperson Deana Gamble. "The City is presently pre-qualifying providers eligible to receive city funding. This group would contract with the providers pre-qualified by the City."
However, the Committee of Seventy, the Philadelphia-based government watchdog group, did not take issue with the political implications of the pre-K contract being awarded to the combined group.
“I don’t have a visceral reaction to it,” said Committee President David Thornburgh. “The UAC has been around for a long time and has done a lot of good stuff. PHMC is sort of an omnibus organization for health stuff. These aren’t fly-by-night organizations. Everybody in this town has political connections to everybody else … I’ve known Sharmain for 15 to 25 years. I was on their [UAC’s] board for a while.”
A Kenney spokesperson said that the decision to spin off the program’s management to a nonprofit was made as “a recommendation of the (Philadelphia) Commission on Universal Pre-Kindergarten.” In a statement, the administration said this was necessary because “early childhood education field requires specialized financing and regulation.”
Yesterday, School Reform Commission member Bill Green criticized that decision, saying it cut out the district and could lead to political exploitation because of lax nonprofit oversight.
In a statement yesterday, Gamble said the administration was “committed to holding this organization to a high bar of transparency.”
Green, from the SRC, had only a three-word reaction to the alleged bid by an entity with ties to Kenney: “Res ipsa loquitor” – Latin for “it speaks for itself.”
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.