Special Reports

EXCLUSIVE: Charter school doubles as bar

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Philadelphia Public School system tells Action News they are reviewing the practices of one West Philadelphia Charter School.

During the day, the building hosts students. But when the sun goes down, a bar opens up and it has no legal license to operate.

Action News shot video of famed rapper T.I. lifting the spirits of students at Harambee Charter School in West Philadelphia. But we also have video of adults lifting spirits too -- though a very different kind of spirits -- in the very same room as T.I.'s appearance with the students. It has mixed up a controversy that is giving city officials one major headache.

"The idea of mixing.... liquor in a school that covers very young grades, its really stunning, shocking," Alan Butkovitz, the Philadelphia City Controller, told Action News.

By day the Harambee Institute Charter School looks like any other. It educates some 450 students from Kindergarten through 8th grade and has earned praise for some of the academic success they've seen.

But by night the cafeteria turns into Club Damani. It's a bar that authorities say is unlicensed, and illegal.

Administrators from Harambee declined our request for an on-camera interview, but told Action News by phone they believed they were properly licensed. They also said that the bar business and the school are in no way connected except that they happen in the same location.

They added that the proceeds from the bar benefit community programs, in line with the values with which the school was founded.

When Action News paid a visit to Club Damani, signs for were prominently displayed on the front of the school. An Action News producer was were able to buy a beer, as were dozens of other people. They were drinking and dancing, lured by the club's website and by other internet ads posted on sites like youtube.com.

Pennsylvania state liquor code often uses proximity to schools as a factor in granting licenses to sell and serve alcohol, often denying licenses to applicants within 300 feet of a school building.

Club Damani, unlicensed since 2008, is a whole lot closer. As you've seen, it's inside a place where students gather during the school day.

A spokesperson told us the club is sanctioned by the Harambee Institute, Inc. which is legally separate from the Harambee Institute Charter School. But the school's CEO sits on the corporation's board. Even though charter schools receive the same public funding just like other public schools, financial records of charter schools aren't subject to the same scrutiny as other public schools.

Harambee has gotten nearly $3.6 million tax payer dollars per year. An amount the city comptroller says should buy some answers, and demand respect for the law.

"It's obviously a gaping loophole, and a great potential for misuse," said Butkovitz.

Butkovitz added that he believes the rules regulating how charter schools report their business dealings must be changed, and he called the club at the Harambee school one glaring example as to why.

Harambee, however, is adamant it has done nothing wrong even though both the city and state insist it has, and pledge to enforce the law they say the Institute is clearly, and boldly, breaking.

(Copyright ©2014 WPVI-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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