From the start, Anita DeFrancesco realized that working for K-12 Staffing — a company that placed substitute teachers in local charter schools — was unlike any job she’d held before.
It wasn’t normal, she says, that the company asked for, but never followed up on obtaining, her state-required child-abuse-history clearance, criminal background check or FBI clearance before sending her to fill in at New Media Technology Charter School in Mount Airy last December. It wasn’t normal that — despite submitting multiple invoices — she was never paid for her work, around $550. And it definitely wasn’t normal when, this spring, K-12 Staffing’s website went dark and its Facebook page vanished.
“When they called and asked if I could sub [in December], I thought: ‘Aren’t they going to ask about my child-[abuse] clearance, aren’t they going to ask me about my FBI report?’” DeFrancesco says. “But I figured … ‘She needs me and I have to go.’ I was teaching with all these [documents] in my pocket, and they didn’t even check them. But what if the wrong person got hired?”
It turns out that DeFrancesco had wandered into the middle of a tangled network of seemingly fly-by-night businesses serving an array of vulnerable populations in Philadelphia — day care, substitute-teacher staffing and personal-care homes for people with schizophrenia, AIDS, physical disabilities and cancer — all affiliated with the same owner, a woman named Wakeeta Rowe. Operating under at least 12 corporate names, Rowe has racked up more than 25 lawsuits for unpaid wages, rent and taxes, and has been evicted from numerous properties where she ran businesses including personal-care homes, apparently shuffling residents from one living situation to the next as rents went unpaid.
Taken together, the court documents and plaintiffs’ accounts paint a picture of an operation that was able to navigate the cracks in the education and public-welfare systems — working hand-in-hand with charter schools and the welfare system, while evading bill collectors, avoiding government licensing bodies and creating potentially dangerous situations for those in its care.
Rowe and her supporters offer a markedly different portrait.
“I guess you can see she’s an entrepreneur, she always been, had one or two businesses going,” says Lisa Rowe, her sister.
Among those businesses, according to the eviction filings, were a bookstore, a coffee shop and a day care called the Kiddie Kollege Academy.
George Khalil rented Rowe the Kiddie Kollege property, on the 2000 block of South Hemberger Street. He says she ran a day care from around 2006 to 2009, during which time he sued to evict her twice: “Right after the [first] court date she pays, and then she doesn’t pay nothing. And she changes the phone number every time. Every time a different phone number.”
But there was, at least, a permit to run a day care out of that property. Her personal-care homes — run under the various names of Philacare, Venango Care Centers Inc., Penn Social Services and Rowe & Associates — aren’t licensed with the state Department of Public Welfare (DPW) at all.
Rowe and her sister say the homes and their workers have all necessary licenses, though they would not specify which licenses or the locations of the homes. Rowe says none of her Philadelphia houses have more than three residents; DPW licenses and oversees only homes with four or more residents.
Landlords, however, say it was evident there were more people living there — and sometimes in unwholesome conditions.
For one, Willie Seward sued to evict Philacare and Rowe from his rental property, a three-bedroom house at 1512 W. Venango St., last September, complaining that she had racked up $2,615 in unpaid rent, gas and water bills. According to Seward, she had four or five people living at the house, and put the gas and electric bills under the names of her tenants.
Just before the lock-out date, “She moved them on to another house. She found herself another sucker,” he says. “They stayed places about six months and then she gotta go because the landlord evicted her.”
He says he was angry about his money, but worried about the residents. “They were kind of disabled, disorientated — they wasn’t normal people, they had a sickness,” he says. He wondered: Where would they end up?
It turns out they ended up — at least for several months — at the rental property of another landlord (who asked not to be named), a four-bedroom house in West Oak Lane. This time, Rowe was calling her company Rowe & Associates.
“She explained she runs personal-care homes for various older folks who have been adjudicated medically disabled,” says the landlord. Rowe told him she had four charges she needed to place, though he saw more residents living in the house and still receives mail (“real” mail, he says: bank statements and doctor’s bills, not junk mail) for at least six residents.
Rowe’s payments were late every month, then they stopped. He claims Rowe owed close to $4,000 by the time she was evicted. Worse, he says, someone apparently tampered with the gas meter, prompting Philadelphia Gas Works to remove it. It wasn’t replaced until after she moved out. “Those poor people lived without hot water, a stove or heat in the house, just in squalor, from late March through late May, when the final person got moved out,” he says.
When he stopped by, he would see a few elderly people sitting on plastic lawn chairs in the living room, watching a TV on a milk crate. Later, he was concerned enough by what he saw while cleaning up — signs that a resident had been sleeping on sheets on the floor with scraps of carpet padding for a blanket — that he called the Social Security Administration to complain.
But nothing apparently came of it. And it turns out that, as a charter-school contractor, Rowe was able to operate with a similar degree of latitude.
Based on lawsuits, her various staffing agencies — Rowe & Associates, Educational Staffing Network, Educational Staffing Services and Childcare Staffing Network — sent teachers to Delaware Valley Charter High School, Sankofa Academy Charter in West Chester, Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School and New Media Technology Charter School, and others.
Addison Vawters, who taught at New Media for K-12 Staffing, worked 30 days over the course of about two months beginning Sept. 26, 2011. But he never saw a paycheck. Once, in November, Rowe paid him $800 in cash, significantly less than half of what he was owed. “But that never happened again,” he says.
Vawters also says that K-12 Staffing gave him assignments for a full month prior to receiving his criminal background check, which was delayed in the mail. Due to a DPW error, his child-abuse-history clearance didn’t get to him until after he had stopped working with K-12.
Rowe disputes that: “Every teacher presented the necessary clearances within the state’s 30 days deadline! A criminal check is conducted immediately, same day with our account with the PA State Police,” she wrote via email to City Paper. However, the state allows provisional hiring only if the teacher isn’t left alone with children (which Vawters and DeFrancesco say they were).
Moreover, Rowe claims that she was scammed — on one end by charters that didn’t pay, and on the other by subs who over-invoiced her. She says New Media Technology in July finally squared its account with her for services rendered last school year, and her “goal is to pay the few teachers awaiting payment.”
As for the other schools, she wrote: “We are also the victim! … The marietta bruschetta [sic] charter school did not pay for services of 1 substitute teacher for approx 9 days. The sankofa charter school has never paid an invoice for 1 substitute teacher for approx 1 month of teaching services. Both schools has never paid or responded to a payment plan option.”
No one at New Media or Sankofa responded to multiple interview requests. Ron O’Shea, a K-12 Staffing sub at Sankofa, says he never received what the agency owed him, but after he complained Sankofa began paying him directly. Walter Akens, administrative assistant at Mariana Bracetti, says, “To our knowledge, K-12 Staffing never sent us an invoice nor … anything about a payment plan.”
Rowe says she invited the unpaid teachers “to join us in taking legal action as co-plaintiffs, and none agreed.” But neither Vawters nor DeFrancesco received any such letter. O’Shea says Rowe did give him a chance to join legal action against Sankofa, but he declined. “I asked [Rowe] very specifically what was going on, and it was just misdirection, like talking to a politician or a lawyer or something,” O’Shea says.
As to the consequences of all this, they’ve been seemingly limited. Many of the civil lawsuits against her were dismissed because it proved impossible to locate and serve Rowe. And those who sought to garnish funds from her known bank accounts usually found themselves out of luck, since the accounts had been emptied.
Meanwhile, Philacare’s website is still live, though a DPW spokesperson tells CP the department will investigate. And Lisa Rowe says she’s running her own substitute-teacher-placement business this school year. She would not divulge the name of that business, but she says she has four or five client schools lined up.
That leaves landlords like Khalil, who says he was out more than $5,000, plenty agitated — but seemingly out of luck.
“I need my money,” he says. “If you find her, let me know.”
Also in this week's news section: