While passing a slew of bills and resolutions, City Council on Thursday showed that the controversial Actual Value Initiative – AVI – remains a priority for the body, with some members going so far as to threaten the Office of Property Assessment with a subpoena in order to obtain the methodology and equations used in determining residential value.
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. led a growing chorus of officials calling for the office to explain its methods, saying the assessment values vary so wildly, it’s impossible to tell what the true value is.
“OPA has not sent us the calculations, or the methods they used to Council or the public on how they arrived at those numbers,” Jones said, noting that he has found a series of new assessments in his district that cannot be correct, pointing to residences sold for $1.7 million being assessed a value of $700,000 as but one example. “It seems that we’re just moving from one flawed system to another.”
While Councilman Bill Green suggested Council exercise its investigative powers and subpoena OPA for the details, President Darrell Clarke said Council will have the data by next week.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown – with assists from Councilwomen Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Marian Tasco – introduced an orbiting resolution to not only investigate AVI itself, but the coordinating agencies, departments and city commissions that are involved as well.
According to Brown, when OPA addressed Council during its budget hearings last month, it came out that an overwhelming number of homeowners were not informed of the new rates, and that as many as 340,000 homeowners are eligible for the Homestead Exemption, but only 183,000 applications were received.
The Homestead Exemption provides relief to distressed homeowners in the way of grants worth upward of $30,000 to be put toward the owner’s real estate tax bill.
“AVI must be a collaborative team effort with all hands on deck from all city departments. I join several City Council colleagues who have concerns that citizens, especially seniors, vulnerable populations and other hard to reach groups are not being adequately informed about what AVI means to them, and of protections available to them,” Brown said, referring to those homeowners who lack Internet access, are elderly, of limited resources and those whose native language isn’t English. “We cannot assume that we have 340,000 homeowners who are glued to the news each day looking for the latest update on AVI.
“It is in the best interest of our citizens for all city departments to work together to be in neighborhoods, in churches, in living rooms and to leave no stone unturned in the effort to get this information into the hands of our constituents,” Brown continued. “The burden is on government to reach out.”
To that end, Council also passed a bill that amends the Philadelphia Code as it relates to real estate taxes, which lend clarity to payment installment plans and other enforceable actions.
In unrelated action on bills and resolutions,Council voted a resolution supporting state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf’s push for religious freedom in schools and a Clarke-sponsored bill that approves the redevelopment contract for the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority as the authority undertakes the redevelopment and renewal of Model Cities Urban Renewal Area.
State Rep. James Roebuck, who recently submitted legislation aimed at reforming the finances and accountability for charter and cyber-charter schools, has withstood withering criticism from the charter school community — particularly from longtime educator and charter school operator Veronica Joyner — for submitting statutes that they say cripple charters while not addressing the parallel issues in the traditional public school system.
While Roebuck understands the criticism, and to some degree has come to expect and welcome it, he will not tolerate misperceptions about his bill, particularly the assertion that he is somehow trying to limit school choice for those that need it most – the poor and minority families trapped in the cycle of school closings and spiraling in-school violence permeating traditional public schools.
“That [assertion] is simply not true. My intent is to ensure that we develop good educational opportunities for all students. The bill I offered is not aimed at any way toward the charter school community,” Roebuck said, noting that nearly ten similar charter school reform bills have been introduced and will be considered by the House. “My intent is to try and identify problems where they exist, be it in traditional, charter or cyber charters, and resolve them.
“I am vigilant to correct problems in both [school systems].”
At issue is Roebuck’s combined charter reform bill and detailed report, “Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Update and Comprehensive Reform Legislation,” which outlines several issues revolving around charters, including the lack of overall accountability. Roebuck’s release also details how much the state, and by extension, the responsible school districts, could save if these reforms take place.
“What is clear is that these schools are facing several financial challenges, to the point where there is a lack of transparency and accountability. I want to make sure the tax dollars we’re spending goes to the education of children,” Roebuck said, adding that he felt “offended” by the sentiment that he would do anything that would hurt the educational opportunities for minority families and children – citizens he communicates with frequently from his West Philadelphia offices.
“That’s not my intent and it has never been my intent,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that [Joyner] chose that line of response; we might disagree on substance, but to say to my intent is to deny any students educational choice is false.”
Roebuck is not alone in calling for a reassessment of charter school operations and is hardly the first to demand reforms. In fact, a recent report by Public Citizens for Children and Youth seems to buttress Roebucks’ claims, as it shows that many area charter schools, and specifically those coming up for renewal, have fallen below district averages. The problems are so insidious, PCCY officials say, that many of the charters do not accept special education, English as a Second Language (ESL) students or extremely low-income students.
“We cannot ignore these factors,” PCCY Executive Director Donna Cooper said. “City-wide charters should reflect the realities of the District’s student population. We should operate with common goals. All schools should be accessible to all students and at a minimum showing academic output as strong as the district.”
According to the report, The PSSA results of the 16 charters seeking renewal indicate that one charter has academic results that are lower than the district’s average results for at least the last two years. Low test scores are one indicator that the school is unable to offer its students the educational opportunity promised by the charter operator.
The report also found that one charter school has a Special Education enrolled rate that is a third of the district’s rate, another has a rate that is nearly half the district’s enrollment rate, and five others have special education rates that are significantly less than the district average; the report also shows that 13 of the charter schools have fewer than 2 percent English Language Learners compared to the district average of 8 percent, and nine of the charter schools serve fewer low income students than the district average.
PCCY also called on the SRC to protect the district’s fiscal condition and permit charter enrollment expansion only if there are unused charter slots or by reassigning those that may become available due to closure, along with agreeing to proceed with charter expansion, only if comes in tandem with enrollment expansion in high-quality district schools.
“I think the reality is, you have some good charter schools and not so good charters, and you have good traditional public schools and not so good one,” Roebuck said. “Some parents have found that charters are the way to go for their child, but on the other hand, I’ve had parents who have not had the same [positive] experience with charters.
“It has created a second educational system that mirrors the traditional public school system.”
Lastly, Roebuck took exception with those who apparently forgot what the charter school legislation was initially intended to do: formulate an alternative method for educating the youth, one with checks, balances and total transparency.
“Here in Harrisburg, we’ve had some charter school operators who wanted to take out the ‘innovative’ language in their contracts. But the reality is, if you go back to 1997 when we passed the charter school legislation, it was to create different models of delivering education to students,” Roebuck said. “I do think there are great charter school models out there, but there has been no consistent effort to replicate what works.”
One of the schools is Joyner’s own Mathematics, Civics, and Sciences Charter School which Roebuck said he had visited previously and came away impressed.
“I’ve visited [Joyner’s] school, and she has a good school; but I don’t know of efforts to replicate it,” Roebuck said, placing most of the systemic failure at the feet of Gov. Tom Corbett, whose administration, Roebuck says, is exacerbating the situation by not reimbursing the district the millions in funds the district pays into the local charter school system – a decision that is at least partly responsible for this district’s current financial malaise.
“The state is supposed to provide fair and equal education for all, but what has hurt the system the most is the failure of the state to provide adequate level of funding,” he said.
Officials responsible for the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact – an education reform agreement signed by the School District of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, the Mayor’s Office on Education, the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia – have recently publicized a new program to attract and retain high-quality teachers for each district.
The plan will be used to help better select, prepare and certify principals.
The districts combined hire and assign as many as 65 new principals each academic year, and the new tool – PhillyPLUS – will launch this summer with 15 principal fellows. PhillyPLUS will expand to certify upward of 60 candidates annually, the overwhelming majority of which will serve in at-risk neighborhoods and work with low-income students.
So far, 65 educators have signed up for the PhillyPLUS residency program, and education leaders are betting on big results.
“Recruiting and developing strong school leaders is essential to creating a system for excellent schools. Our best principals are creating high-quality teaching and learning environments and PhillyPLUS leverages their skills and experience to cultivate more great leaders,” said School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr. “We believe many of our new school leaders will come directly from district classrooms, and PhillyPLUS will allow our best educators to hone their leadership skills under an effective principal and complete the program prepared to serve as effective school leaders.”
The compact committee – the body responsible for the creation of PhillyPLUS – studied several principal preparation programs nationwide, and settled on nonprofit TNTP to administer the program. TNTP specializes in working with teachers and principals with a desire to work in inner-city, minority communities. Its programs are approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Principal Preparation Program.
“PhillyPLUS builds on past efforts in the district and elsewhere to build high-quality principal training programs by providing aspiring leaders access to practical experience that is focused on instructional leadership and management,” said Dr. Karen J. Kolsky, the district’s assistant superintendent of Leadership and Talent Development. “Rather than just shadowing leaders, residents are given the responsibility to manage a team of teachers and held accountable for impacting teacher effectiveness and student achievement.
“They will also collaborate with their mentor principal to make management decisions about budget, staffing and school operations.”
The formation of PhillyPLUS comes at a time when the compact is facing a certain amount of criticism, which stems mostly from its partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which recently donated $2.5 million to the compact, and the slippery slope that is the compact’s stated mission of supporting schools that meet certain academic standards and closing those which do not.
Still, the benefits of PhillyPLUS may far outweigh and criticisms, especially if fulfills its premise.
“Many of Philadelphia’s charter schools have expressed a need to recruit and develop talented educators to fill leadership roles within the next couple of years,” said Esperanza Academy Charter High School CEO and Great Schools Compact Committee member David Rossi. “PhillyPLUS plans to select highly qualified participants from a diverse, competitive pool and prepare them with real-world experience to be effective charter school principals and instructional leaders.”
The multi-faith umbrella group POWER – Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild – will hold a massive rally on Sunday, April 21, that will update its more than 40 member congregations and more than 4,000 individual members during what organizers are terming it as “Building a City of Opportunity That Works For All.”
The rally begins at 3 p.m. at the Deliverance Evangelistic Church, 2001 W. Lehigh Ave.
The rally will address three main topics: employment and access tied to the forthcoming expansion of Philadelphia International Airport and proving better pay and resources for whom POWER considers are grossly underpaid employees, making sure POWER’s members’ input regarding the school closures are properly addressed, and finally, seeking a path toward naturalization for the region’s undocumented foreigners.
“We will build on our long-term campaign, with the priority being the airport expansion,” explained POWER Executive Director Bishop Dwayne Royster. “We’ve partnered with Local 32BJ of SEIU, Fight for Philly and with other unions to amend the US Airways lease to add a training component, which would make [potential employees] work-ready on day one. It also guarantees they follow the 21st Century Living Wage Ordinance, which calls for them to get a minimum wage of $10.88 an hour.
“There are people right now at the airport that handle baggage that make $2.85 an hour,” Royster continued, noting that a recent report showed the US Airways’ CEO has an annual compensation package worth $5.5 million, yet the airlines’ contractors and subcontractors get paid less than one-tenth of one percent of that figure. “And the excuse is because it a ‘tipped’ position. But some of those people working in those positions aren’t allowed to ask for tips.”
Royster intimated that Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is a supporter of POWR’s platform and will speak on Sunday. Also invited to speak is School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr., as will School Reform Commission member Sylvia Sims.
“Dr. Hite will attend,” Royster confirmed. “POWER is organizing around the district and organizing with parents and other parent-based organizations to ensure that parents have a collective say about the destiny of their neighborhood schools.”
Last on POWER’s Sunday agenda is immigration outreach, which Royster says is a very important issue among his membership, as a healthy portion of POWER’s member churches have flocks peppered with such individuals.
“Thirdly, we want to create a pathway to citizenship program for undocumented citizens, especially those here,” Royster said. “I am excited, and believe this is when faith is at its best: when it’s working, being engaged and being the moral conscious of government and society.”
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah has recently announced that the Temple University, Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania will divvy up a $3 million grant, which will go toward advanced research in spinal cord injury and transplant repair, while also focusing on allergies.
“The investment of these research dollars will see a significant return in the quality of life,” Fattah said, “for Americans suffering with spinal cord injury, allergies and transplant rejection.”
Fattah is the senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and ranking member on the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies.
The Department of Health and Human Services and the National Science Foundation – two organizations with which Fattah has an extensive history of cooperation – have facilitated this grant, which will be funneled to the schools through several channels.
Drexel University will receive $1,271,929.00 from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for its continued research in spinal cord injury, plasticity and transplant repair. The institute has also granted $351,445.00 to Temple University for its research into biomarkers – indicators of biological states – for spinal cord injuries in children.
The National Science Foundation – an independent, partisanship-free organization created by Congress in 1950 to promote national health while boosting the nation’s prosperity and defense capabilities – will donate to the University of Pennsylvania $1,160,002.00 for the more academic research into complex, multilayered algebraic equations. UPenn will also receive an additional developmental grant of $240,000 from DHHS’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fattah, long a champion of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – related programs throughout all levels of education, believes what UPenn is doing to be just as important as the research done on the medical side.
“The progress of modern technology is dependent on advancements in abstract algebra,” Fattah said. “This grant will provide critical resources for further developments and innovations in STEM.”
Fattah is no stranger to the neuroscience and academic sectors, and Fattah’s platform – the Fattah Neuroscience Initiative – received a boost earlier this month when President Barack Obama signed legislation encouraging a better synergy among players in the private sector of brain science and therapy development.
The FNI, created to produce innovations in the understanding of and therapies for brain-related research, will have ramifications for the region’s renowned pharmaceutical sector.
This new legislation is Fattah’s second major science-related statute. Obama signed earlier language authored by Fattah in December, 2011, that for the first time coordinated multi-agency neuroscience research under the umbrella of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This collaboration is now the Interagency Working Group on Neuroscience, which is due to issue its final report in June.
According to Fattah, this new legislation will allow work with all relevant stakeholders to consider how incentives could hasten the development of new prevention and treatment options for neurological diseases and disorders, and to recommend options for such incentives.
“The educational, health and economic benefits of these policies,” Fattah said, “will last far into the century for individuals, families and the country as a whole.”