Education activists and the Philadelphia NAACP have filed what is almost certainly the first complaint with the City of Philadelphia Board of Ethics regarding the new lobbyists registration law, and none of the parties targeted think they're doing anything close to lobbying.

The complaint involves the Philadelphia School District's planning effort, and its use of the Boston Consulting Group to develop options on some very big questions that confront the district: how many schools to close, and which ones; the role of charter schools in the city's future; and how the district's management might be restructured.

The dispute arises from the fact that, because the district is broke, it relied on private groups and individuals, most prominently the William Penn Foundation to fund the effort.

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education is troubled that, for much off the work, the district didn't hire Boston Consulting with a grant from William Penn. After an initial phase in which the district engaged Boston Consulting, William Penn contracted directly with the consultant -- which meant that you had a major public planning process in which the public agency involved wasn't legally a party to the deal.

"We wouldn't be here if there was a contract between the school district of Philadelphia and the Boston Consulting Group," Gym said at a news conference Wednesday. "We're here because they decided to do something dramatically different to ensure that the public would not have a whole lot of insight into what was going on."

Gym said she and others haven't been able to get information developed in the planning process, because it isn't proceeding under a public contract. School district spokesman Fernando Gallard said much information developed by Boston Consulting has been released.

Testing new law

Parents United and its allies found a way to challenge the arrangement via the new lobbying law.

Attorney Michael Churchill of the Philadelphia Public Interest Law Center said that by becoming the contracting authority, the William Penn Foundation itself was legally in charge of Boston Consulting's work and not the school district.

"And by keeping that piece of control, you've converted yourself from just making grants to the school district as a philanthropist to supporting a lobbying process," Churchill said.

The complaint charges that the Boston Consulting Group and William Penn had an obligation to register as lobbyist and client under the city's new lobbying registration law.

You can read the complaint here.

Spokesmen for both William Penn and Boston Consulting said the complaint is without merit.

In correspondence with the complainants, their attorneys said the consulting work was done for the school district, not William Penn nor any other individuals who contributed to the effort.

"The district was the only entity involved in defining the scope of work under the contract," Gallard said. "And the district is and will continue to be the only entity that decides which recommendations and best practices identified by BCG will be implemented in our schools."

The Ethics Board will now consider the complaint.

This disclosure: The William Penn Foundation provides funding to WHYY.