The reaction to the School District’s release earlier this week of the controversial Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools has been mixed, with many local and state elected officials either willing to give the plan a chance, think only a few elements of the plan will work, or wish to scrap the plan altogether.
The blueprint, crafted by the district’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen and submitted to the School Reform Commission on Tuesday, calls for sweeping changes — chief among them a complete reorganization of district headquarters, the closure of 64 public schools, and austerity measures which require a multi-million dollar union give back.
The plan also calls for the establishment of a privatization component — called “Achievement Networks” — which will provide certain services to the schools left standing. Overall, if every element of the plan falls in place, district officials believe these measures will lead to a balanced budget at the conclusion of the five-year plan.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown, co-chair of the education committee and herself once an elementary school teacher, praised the SRC for turning its full attention to the matter, and urged patience as the details of the plan are worked out.
“The School Reform Commission released a bold plan that would dramatically alter what education looks like and feels like to young people in our city. Whether this paradigm shift is the appropriate course of action remains to be seen, but as leaders, it deserves our full attention and respect—we cannot be dismissive about this new budget reality facing the School District of Philadelphia,” Reynolds Brown said. “The devil is always in the details. That notion will absolutely apply as we analyze the data and hear from school district officials as well as those who would be impacted. What does this do to class sizes? How do we make sure our students are not treated like numbers? Will the leadership of localized ‘Achievement Networks’ look like Philadelphia when it comes to diversity? These are the preliminary questions I will be asking.”
Knudsen and SRC chairman Pedro Ramos have repeatedly stated that the organization itself, and businesses participating in the Achievement Networks program will face tight scrutiny, and can be replaced if their products and outcomes are unsatisfactory.
“We need fundamental change and focus on the children and their needs,” Knudsen said the day the blueprint was released. We are righting the ship financially, and finally addressing the change we need to make. But it’s also about a process that is not simple.”
Complicating the process is the blueprint’s plan to shave $156 million from personnel, in the form of a restructured wage scale and benefit program.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who says the union membership already did its share of sacrificing when the district asked for several cuts over recent years, released a scathing statement, accusing the district of gross mismanagement.
“This restructuring plan has nothing to do with raising student achievement,” Jordan’s statement said. “The district provided a business model, not a research-based plan for turning around or supporting schools. By closing 64 schools, and transferring more and more children out of publicly accountable, neighborhood schools and into charter, cyber-charter and private schools, the School District of Philadelphia is saying it no longer wants to be in the business of educating children. It would rather manage a ‘portfolio’ than do the hard work my members do every day educating children. This is a cynical, right-wing and market-driven plan to privatize public education, to force thousands of economically disadvantaged families to select from an under-funded hodge-podge of EMO- and charter-company-run schools, and to convert thousands of professional and family-sustaining positions into low-paying, high-turnover jobs.”
The blueprint also calls for $122 million in cuts to the district’s overall operations, and a $149 million reduction in public charter school funding; that reduction would equal a 7 percent loss in per-pupil funding.
Knudsen cited New York City’s public school reformation as an example of school reform that works, but education expert Diane Ravitch said that “New York City has not had any great success.” Ravitch, in town earlier this week for the conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook that “New York used to boast of dramatic test score gains, but they disappeared in 2010.”
“They’ve gone through four reorganizations,” Ravitch said. “New York has changed so much I don’t know what version Philadelphia is talking about.”
Ravitch, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under several administrations, called plans for privatilization an “abdication of public responsibility.”
“I didn’t see anything that would cause learning to improve, just a lot of rhetoric that schools would achieve more than they used to because we say so,” Ravitch said. “If you really want to improve schools, you have to do something about teaching and learning. This is just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The blueprint as presented also raises other concerns. Knudsen said that even if the SRC adopts the plan, the district — or whatever remains in its place — wouldn’t actualize any savings until fiscal year 2013; and most of the plan hinges on the $90 million-plus the district is slated to get through the equally controversial Actual Value Initiative – or AVI. These are revenues from an adjusted real estate tax plan. However, AVI is now bogged down in council, and it’s hard to say if or when the school district will receive those funds – or if will be in the $90 million range school officials hope for.
City Council President Darrell Clarke had general praise for the SRC taking this important step, but was careful to note the limits of council’s power in overseeing the district’s spending.
“Some aspects of it make some sense, some are of some concern, but the reality is that things have to change - and they have to change dramatically,” Clarke said. “You have to deal with teachers, and you have to deal with structures.”
Emphasizing that he expected the plan to change, Clarke said he supported its basic premise, and the fact that it laid out a long term plan for the district.
Clarke lauded school commissioners for being open to suggestion from council.
Council is in the process of analyzing Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget, going over it line by line, which includes the assumption that the school district will receive about $94 million more in property tax revenues this year as the city moves toward a property tax system based on full market valuation.
With council expected to give an increased allocation to the district, Clarke expects members to exert more influence on how that money is spent.
That has not always happened in the past. Last year, under the leadership of former school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the district coaxed $53 million in additional funding from council. But, many council members felt she tricked them when it became clear after the fact that despite Ackerman’s statements to the contrary during the budget process, the district did have money to pay for full-day kindergarten. Ackerman used the threat of eliminating full-day kindergarten as her primary bargaining chip in budget talks with council.
“With this new $90 million request, there is going to be something in there that reflects our viewpoint. That’s just the bottom line,” Clarke said, adding that with new, more cooperative commissioners, he expected the SRC to include some of council’s suggestions.
“They’ve listened to our concerns and listened to our suggestions to this point,” he said.
Ultimately, spending decisions must be made by the SRC.
“Our role is limited,” Clarke said. “We’re simply viewed as the person who is supposed to say ‘aye’ when it comes to the school district budget. That’s essentially what we’ve been.”
While city council debates the merits of the blueprint, State Representative Dwight Evans can do little more than shake his head at this current mess. Evans urged for school reform almost two decades ago, when he submitted both the “School Reform and Accountability Proposal” and drafted a school reform bill for the House in 1997. The blueprint Knudsen submitted bears striking resemblance to many of the suggestions Evans either made through his proposal, or through the Neighborhood School Network intuitive.
“They have a lot of moving parts…there’s some things the state has to do and some things they have to do locally, and there are some things I am not for. For example, anything that would squeeze the aspect of choice around parents and kids, I would not be for,” said Evans, a longtime supporter of the charter school movement. “It flies in the face of being a child-centered system. Because how can you say, on one hand, these students get choice; but on the other hand, stifle choice for everybody else?
“Those are just two of the criticisms I would have,” Evans continued, noting that he agrees it was time for the district to act, but will fight any cuts to charter school funding. “If this is supposed to be about children and parents and not about a dysfunctional system, then in my view, anything these people try to do on the backs of charters is counter-productive. When you look at the numbers, they are basically trying to use charters to balance their budget.”
Staff Writer Eric Mayes contributed to this report.
City Council had little say about reorganization
A lack of input from the community and the city’s powerful politicians may prove fatal to the School District’s new plan to close more than three dozen schools across the city.
“I think the process is flawed,” said Council President Darrell Clarke, noting that, according to school officials, the process of selecting which schools would close has been going for more than a year. The public just learned the details in December. “You should have started having this conversation early on.”
Several members of City Council made similar arguments — chiding the district for its handling of the plan. Council members faulted the plan on several grounds, worrying that the closings didn’t take into account the impact those closings would have on the surrounding neighborhood, or how students would be affected when moved to different neighborhoods, or by the distance some will be required to travel.
“There are a lot of questions about how this was done,” said Jannie Blackwell, head of Council’s education committee. Eight schools in her district are expected to close. “It’s just not tightly enough put together.”
Despite repeated attempts, Superintendent William Hite could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Blackwell said she hopes to hold hearings on the plan next month. The dates are still up in the air but she told the Tribune she wanted to schedule them on the first or second Tuesday of February.
Every council member polled by the Tribune agreed that some schools will have close.
“I certainly understand the School District’s position and financial circumstances,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “We all know that they have been bleeding for many years.”
But, all three said they’d like to see the plan delayed.
Clarke, speaking as a representative of his district, and not council president, said he didn’t oppose “right-sizing.” And, Blackwell acknowledged that some schools will have to close.
No one blamed Hite, who has been in the District’s top position only since September.
School District officials, last month, released a list of 37 schools they expected to close due to falling enrollment. The plan would shift about 17,000 students to different schools. School officials contend it’s necessary for the cash-strapped district to close schools in an effort to save money.
However, the council president is not particularly pleased that Council was not part of the conversation as school officials drew up the proposal.
“They needed to have conversations outside of the School District family,” he said.
Doing so would have helped the District look beyond its present circumstances, said Clarke. As an example, he spoke about plans to close L.P. Hill Elementary and Strawberry Mansion High School because the number of students there has been dropping. However, he said, at least 194 new houses are being built near the school, which could bring a minimum of 200 students to the neighborhood.
“They had no idea about that,” he said. “This decision was made in a vacuum. There was a bean counter behind it.”
His sentiments were echoed by others on Council.
Blackwell said the plan didn’t seem to take into account the reality for many students in Philadelphia.
“Kids in this district can’t just go anywhere. We’ve got enough crime now — we don’t need that kind of crime,” Blackwell said.
“They have not given adequate thought or preparation to those closures,” she said, adding that she hopes to see a one-year moratorium on implementing the plan.
As an example she cited plans to close T.M. Pierce Elementary School and move students to E. Washington Rhodes Middle School.
“Walking from Pierce to Rhodes will be quite a challenge for young people,” she said, noting that the area between the two buildings was troubled by crime and blight.
Though he expected a broader discussion among council members, Clarke said this week, there has been very little group discussion so far.
Nearly a third of the schools expected to close are in North Philadelphia.
Ten of the 37 schools targeted for closing are in Clarke’s Fifth District. Two are in the adjoining portion of the Eighth District, represented by Bass, who has a total of five targeted schools in her district.
Clarke wondered why so many closings were planned in such a small area.
“There is a disproportionate number of schools to be closed in North Philadelphia,” he said.
That could seal the fate of an already troubled area.
“Realistically, the likelihood of a re-use of some of those buildings is extremely limited,” he said. “They close these schools down, and they walk away.”
That adds to blight and steers families away from the neighborhood.
“The first question always is ‘where are the schools?’” Clarke said.
The council president said that Hite briefed him personally on details of the plan the day before it was released to the public in a brief telephone conversation. Bass and Blackwell said they too had been briefed the day before the public announcement but none were consulted during the process of putting the plan together, they said.
Council’s options when it comes to influencing School District policy and SRC decisions are limited. Members can, and often do, give their opinions — but beyond that there is little they can do, aside from slashing school funding.
Council approved more money for the district in each of the last three years though in the last two budget cycles the city has sought to increase its power by first instituting a cooperative agreement with the district and then, last year, by awarding a portion of school funding as a grant, giving Council the opportunity to withhold funds.
Clarke said he expected the tug of war over money to intensify this year.
“We have no ability to influence operations,” he said. “The conversation, as to their ability to get more tax revenue out of the city, is going to be extremely limited.”
Blackwell was more explicit.
Noting that the SRC will not vote on the proposal until March she pointed out that Council will be heading into budget negotiations at the same time and the issue would be fresh in members’ minds.
“I am hopeful that we get some of this stuff worked out because if we don’t — you’re doggone right — we’re going to have a real problem here,” she said.
Clashes between city politicians and school officials are not new.
Former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman left the District after several high profile battles with the administration and City Council. Ultimately, she lost the support of many elected officials including Mayor Michael Nutter and several members of City Council, a fact that led to resignation.
Clarke urged residents to continue to oppose the plan.
“I think the community should continue to show its displeasure,” he said, adding that he too supports a moratorium on closings.
“We are hopeful that in the end, we can have not all of these schools close,” Blackwell said. “We’re hopeful the District will reconsider and have community input because they know what works in their area and what doesn’t.”
City Council’s unease with the Actual Value Initiative — the shift from property taxes based on partial values to one based on full market values — was apparent this week during budget hearings.
A number of members are concerned that the shift, which was supposed to be revenue neutral, is actually a tax increase.
“You need to address the outstanding questions as relates to the math of this on the issue of whether or not we are asking the public for a tax increase,” said Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. on Wednesday morning as he summed up concerns about AVI.
Jones was just one member of Council who peppered Finance Director Rob Dubow and Budget Director Rebecca Rhynhart with questions and comments over several days this week as Council dug into Mayor Michael Nutter’s $3.6 billion budget proposal.
The administration’s budget numbers show that the move to AVI would provide an additional $90 million in funding for the school district this year, for a total of $673 million. The city, which splits property tax revenue with the district, would collect $458 million, roughly the same amount it collected last year.
Administration officials have avoided calling that extra revenue a tax increase, and instead say it represents the amount captured by increasing property values, which have risen since the city froze assessments in 2010.
But council members, who now appear to be fielding more questions from angry constituents, are nervous.
“This AVI issue is probably going to be the most difficult and angry issue that we’re facing — maybe since I came into council in ’92,” said Councilman Jim Kenney. “I can’t yet find a justification for explaining to people that I represent, citywide, why the additional $90 million makes sense.”
Kenney, like many of his colleagues, voted for property tax increases in several recent budget cycles, and said this week he supports funding for public schools. But, noting that in testimony Monday School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos said previous school administrations were guilty of “bad fiscal policy,” Kenney added that he wanted a better idea of how the district would spend the additional money.
His questions and comments suggested that council might feel more comfortable if revenue figures were changed to eliminate the added $90 million for the district.
“Would you agree with me, subjectively, that with the $90 million off the table it would be difficult for people to argue that this is fact a tax increase?” he asked Dubow, who declined to “get into whether it’s a tax increase.”
Dubow then added that he was sure the district was aware that it would need to justify the added money.
Last year council approved a 3.9 percent property tax increase after school officials, led by former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, said if it didn’t the district would be forced to get rid of full-day kindergarten and yellow buses.
“We were spun,” said Jones, agreeing with Kenney that he would need to know where any additional money was being spent.
Council members are also concerned about how the administration plans to roll out AVI.
The mayor wants to see it done this year. Under the administration’s plan, residents will receive their new assessments in October, and bills based on the new numbers in December.
That concerns council members who are being asked to make decisions based on budget numbers that could change as residents challenge tax bills through city appeals and maybe even court challenges.
“If we for some reason go forward and find out what we’re doing here, the formulation, the method is not legal … and all those appeals are granted we’d collect less revenue, correct?” asked Councilman Mark Squilla.
Dubow said the city had factored greater appeals, losses and lower collections when drawing up the budget.
“We’re assuming that goes up substantially,” he said.
At last week’s city council meeting, Squilla emerged as one of the prime opponents of AVI after he introduced legislation that would freeze property tax millage rates and assessments at current levels.
Squilla also raised concerns about a portion of the city’s AVI plan that would create a $15,000 exemption for residents’ primary residence. That portion of the plan needs approval by the state legislature before it can be enacted.
“We’re still at a point where we cannot give the public real information because we don’t know everything that is going to happen,” said Squilla.
Acting supt. Leroy Nunery describes 'Godfather' tactics
The long-awaited fact-finding report to Mayor Michael Nutter regarding Martin Luther King High School’s failed conversion to a charter school describes strong-arm tactics by former School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie Jr., and state Rep. Dwight Evans that were compared to something out of the “The Godfather,” according to acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery.
According to the report from Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman, Mosaica was correctly chosen by the school’s advisory committee to take over and operate MLK as a charter. But Evans, who has a long relationship with Foundations, interceded and, according to the report, “working outside the School District of Philadelphia’s public process for matching MLK with an outside operator, mounted an intense lobbying effort to change the outcome of the match process to secure Foundations for the School District of Philadelphia’s contract to manage MLK.”
The report also says that Archie, who resigned from his post as chairman of the SRC on Monday, publicly recused himself from the process — specifically, the SRC vote to confirm the awarding of the five-year, $12 million contract to Mosaica — but worked feverishly behind the scenes to support Evans’ ongoing attempt to take away the contract.
Mosaica was awarded the contract on March 16, 2001 in a vote by the SRC. Mosaica had already received the support of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the School Advisory Committee prior to the vote.
In perhaps the most damning bit of information in the 26-page report, Markman writes that Mosaica withdrew from the operation of MLK out of concern that the politically-connected Evans and Archie would frustrate the company’s ability to successfully operate MLK and jeopardize the company’s broader interests.
Reached by phone yesterday, Ackerman, who accepted a $905,000 buyout in August just months after receiving a vote of confidence from the SRC, said she had not read the report but after talking with Markman for hours “knew that the truth would be reported.”
“I lived what is in the report,” Ackerman said. “From what I have seen [the report] does exonerate my role in all of this. They tried to do everything to make me look like I didn’t have any integrity and that I had done something wrong.
“When she and I talked,” Ackerman, speaking of Markman, continued, “she told me that she was going to write the truth. I told her if she did that then it would be fine and that we could let the chips fall where they may, so I trust what is in that report.”
More than anything else, Ackerman feels the MLK fiasco doomed her tenure as schools chief.
“I think it is tragic, but I realized that it was the beginning of the end for me,” she said.
Ackerman did not want to disclose her present location, but she added that in her last few months as superintendent she was accompanied by an armed police officer.
“The last few months have been hell,” she said. “It is time for me to move past all of this. I hope now people will ask the right questions. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of questions that should be asked. There should be some kind of deeper inquiry into all of this.”
Archie disagrees with Ackerman’s recollections, and doesn’t feel the report is worth the paper it was written on.
“I am shocked and angered by the conclusions in the Markman report released today by Mayor Nutter’s office,” Archie said in a statement. “I emphatically reject the findings. They are not supported by facts, and are a reach to say the least. In some cases, they are pure fiction.”
Evans was equally angered over the report.
“I am stunned the city’s chief integrity officer would craft a document that characterizes me as a puppet master who has the ability to pull strings and make people dance,” Evans said. “That is simply not true. The report issued today, while written to suggest nefarious maneuvers, simply supports activities that have been well documented for months.”
Archie met personally with Markman. However, Evans, his aide Kim Turner, and Urban Affairs Coalition president and CEO Sharmain Matlock-Turner, all named in the report, refused to meet with Markman, who interviewed more than 30 people.
In a phone call from Washington, D.C., John Porter, president of Mosaica’s Turnaround Partners, expressed relief that “the truth had finally been told,” but expressed remorse that Mosaica would not have the chance to operate MLK, which is now a Promise Academy.
“I would say my reaction is that I’m glad it’s completed and the facts were stated and made public,” said Porter, who represented Mosaica during the entire process. “I am saddened that we were unable to work with Martin Luther King High. We felt we had built a great relationship with the parents and the children.
Mosaica, located in Atlanta, operates the Birney Preparatory School here. Asked if he felt the fallout from the MLK situation might dissuade Mosaica from pursuing other schools in the city, he said no.
“What I will say is that I am very, very disappointed,” Porter said. “Having said that, no, this will not deter us from continuing to try to establish a relationship with the school district. They are fine people. That’s all I’m willing to say about that matter.”
Foundations, with Evans’ help, has secured contracts with the West Oak Lane Charter School, MLK and the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology.
John Henderson, executive director of communications with the New Jersey-based company, said the entire process had been flawed from the beginning. He said that many events were not reported in the Markman report by the media, and he indicated that he saw inaccuracies in the report.
“Everything we have done at King for the last seven years was designed to improve the quality of education for the children. That has been our commitment during this entire ordeal. Overall, the most disturbing aspect of this entire situation is that it has taken the focus off of the students and their families.”
Henderson said Foundations will continue to maintain its relationship with Evans. However, he was not very familiar with Archie’s relationship to the company.
“It’s no secret that we have had a long relationship with Dwight in that neighborhood,” Henderson said. “In terms of Mr. Archie being an advocate for us, I would say that the relationship has been much more casual.”
While officials with the School District of Philadelphia have been relatively transparent so far about their search for a new superintendent — having whittled the search down to two finalists, Dr. William Hite Jr. and Pedro Martinez — one thing remains unclear: the details of the contract of the new hire.
That decision could be made within a week, prompting the non-profit, non-partisan watchdog organization Committee of Seventy to inquire about the contract package, which, if compared to that of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman, will be very competitive.
“The public has a right to know the costs of bringing and keeping the new superintendent here, said Committee of Seventy President and CEO Zack Stalberg, via a statement released by the organization. “Maximum transparency and full deliberation is especially important given the School District’s grave financial situation and past history of secrecy surrounding deals made with ex-superintendent Arlene Ackerman by the former School Reform Commission.”
Stalberg alluded to what he termed the “overly generous” contract given to Ackerman, alleging that her base salary of $325,000 was about $70,000 more than that of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who is now the city’s highest paid employee.
Ackerman also received a buyout package worth close to $1 million.
In his statement, Stalberg made several suggestions for the SRC to consider when formulating this contract. In particular, Stalberg suggests the new contract include language that ties performance bonus to objective criteria with public input, publicizing the new superintendent’s performance evaluation, establishing modest caps on future buyout packages, limiting to five years the superintendent’s initial contract and the elimination of retention bonuses.
School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said his office hasn’t received any official requests from the Committee of Seventy yet, but said the District will release the details of the contract after the selection process is over, and the contract offered and accepted.
“Our regular process is to make contracts public after they have been signed, so releasing the details of the contract is something we will absolutely do, without question,” Gallard said. “The SRC is committed to making sure that a superintendent contract is fair to the children of Philadelphia and the city’s taxpayers. The SRC will make the contract public right after it is finalized.”
That would seem to satisfy the Committee of Seventy.
“While revealing all the specifics of the contract while it is being negotiated may not be required or even desirable, the SRC can help diffuse a potential firestorm by providing some general information about the discussions with the two finalists for superintendent rather than risk the details leaking out in bits and pieces,” Stalberg said. “Confidence in the public schools is very fragile and the circumstances are unusually complicated. The public is entitled to know the carrots being offered to persuade someone to give up a secure job to come to Philadelphia.”
Former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman died early Saturday morning of pancreatic cancer. She was 66.
According to her son, Anthony Antognoli, Ackerman died around 5 a.m. in Albuquerque, N.M., where she lived. Her son also said that his mother hadn’t been ill for very long.
Ackerman left Philadelphia abruptly over a year and a half ago after continuously wrestling with officials and community leaders, some of whom were highly critical of her leadership of the School District. Others, however, saw her as a beacon of hope for a public school system that is facing financial hardships and difficult decisions.
“Arlene Ackerman was a truly committed educator who demonstrated a profound passion for students and in particular the most disadvantaged students in our city,” said Mayor Michael Nutter on Saturday in a press release. “Through her leadership, Philadelphia took on the difficult, long-neglected task of turning around low-performing schools. Today, thousands of Philadelphia students are getting a better education thanks to her vision and advocacy. Her educational legacy will live on for many years through the initiatives that she championed. Our prayers are with her family and friends.”
Ackerman took over the leadership of the Philadelphia School District in 2008, the nation’s eighth largest public school system. A career educator, she was credited for raising test scores, turning around low-performing schools and for shrinking class sizes. Also under Ackerman, the district experienced a 29 percent decline in violent crime, and a 7 percent rise in sixth-year graduation rates.
Her critics often referred to her as “Queen Arlene” a title that spotlighted a leadership style that some said was dictatorial and autocratic. They questioned her over $300,000-a-year salary and lined up to take shots at her again in August 2011 when Ackerman abruptly resigned as School District superintendant and accepted a negotiated contract buyout of $905,000. She came under public scrutiny for what some considered a slow response to incidents of racial violence at Southern High School in 2009. In that same year the spotlight focused on her again when she interceded in the awarding of a $7.5 million contract for the installation of security cameras in city schools. According to Ackerman minority contractors had been overlooked in the selections process. The contract was granted to IBS Communications, a minority-owned firm.
Despite the outcry from her detractors, a school district investigation found no evidence of wrong doing by Ackerman.
“On behalf of the School District of Philadelphia, I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to the family of Dr. Arlene Ackerman and all who loved her,” said Superintendant William Hite in a statement released shortly after learning of Ackerman’s passing. “Dr. Ackerman devoted her life to children and public education, and in doing so, encouraged countless other individuals to commit their lives to teaching, learning and leading. For that, we are grateful. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and colleagues.”
Phila. School District, Pa. conduct policies may have been violated
It’s too early to predict the impact of a damning new report on the role of former SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and state Rep. Dwight Evans in steering a contract to run Martin Luther King High School away from parents’ choice of school operator to one that they both had a deep connection to, but one thing seems certain — scrutiny of the School Reform Commission will increase.
The specter of criminal charges also hovers in the background.
“There needs to be some fundamental changes in how the District is administered and run,” said state Rep. Michael McGeehan, a vocal Philadelphia School District critic. “This is just the latest revelation about how dysfunctional the system has become.”
State Rep. Ron Waters went a step further, saying that he would support a deeper investigation into how the District awards all of its contracts, and make an effort to remove politics from the process.
“There are other things that might have happened too that need to be looked at,” Waters said, adding, “I hope that there is not a problem, because Philadelphia doesn’t need that.”
On Thursday afternoon, the city’s Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman released the results of her investigation into Archie and Evans’ role in securing a contract for Foundations Inc., a New Jersey based non-profit, to operate Martin Luther King High School. The contract went to Foundations despite the fact that the school’s advisory committee recommended a Georgia based company, Mosaica, to run the school.
The document sums up the role of both men at its conclusion.
“Archie’s and Evans’s actions in this matter have compromised the School District of Philadelphia’s ability to secure parent involvement in their children’s schools, to make decisions according to a fair process and to garner public confidence in those decisions.”
At its heart, the report suggests that both men violated the District — and, perhaps, the state’s — ethics policy.
How that would affect Archie is unclear. He stepped down as SRC chair Monday.
At the very least, the report could spur the city to push for more ethics training for SRC appointees as part of its oversight.
“That is a distinct possibility,” said Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald.
In the case of Evans, though, it could mean a state investigation.
Robin Hittie, chief counsel with the State Ethics Commission, would not comment specifically on the ramifications of Markam’s report. However, speaking in broad terms she said that for an ethics violation to occur a financial benefit has to be established.
“Under the Ethics Act, for a conflict of interest to be established, a public official or public employee must either have used the authority of his public position or confidential information he received by being in that position for a private financial benefit to himself, a member of his immediate family or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated,” Hittie said. “To establish that a public official or employee is associated with the business, it must be shown that he, or a member of his immediate family, is a director, officer, owner or employee or has a financial interest in the business.”
Penalties for ethics violations varied, Hittie said, and ranged from fines to criminal charges.
“The Ethics Act provides both financial penalties and criminal penalties,” Hittie said. “The State Ethics Commission does not have jurisdiction to impose criminal penalties.”
Any criminal charges would have to be brought before a court, which would impose penalties.
Both Evans and Archie had financial relationships with Foundations.
Archie’s ties are less clear than Evans’. On March 16, he recused himself from a vote over the future of MLK High, citing the fact that Duane Morris had done business with Foundations.
In a statement released Thursday, he said that neither he nor Duane Morris had represented the firm since 2002.
Evans’ ties are well documented in campaign finance forms, which show he has accepted campaign donations from Foundations Inc. and its top officials. A routine Google search turns up donations totaling more than $63,000 since 2000.
The Philadelphia School District, with the drafting and acceptance of two resolutions at its meeting this week, has taken two steps to further distance itself from the era of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
The School Reform Commission unanimously accepted both resolutions — one confirming the hire of Dr. William R. Hite Jr. as the next superintendent of the district, and another that extends the contract of Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen through the last week of November. Hite’s first day will be Oct. 1, but will consult the district on related matters before he officially takes his office.
Hite reveled in the “passion shown by stakeholders” during a series of town hall-style meetings that preceded his decision to come here from the Prince Georges County Public School system.
“That passion was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it was all about creating better education environments for the students,” Hite said. “That inspired me and made me more excited about the opportunity.”
Hite also said the district was “ripe for reform because there are budgetary challenges forcing the district to look at the ways it does business.”
“These things can no longer be taken for granted — how we structure programs, offer support and make sure great teachers are in front of the students,” Hite said, promising to leave Philadelphia’s school district a better place than he found it. “
The school district has released the terms of Hite’s contract on its website, www.phila.k12.pa.us.
Hite’s base salary of $300,000 — $50,000 less than that of Ackerman — runs through August 2017, and aside from serving as superintendent, Hite will also assume School Reform Commission treasurer and secretary duties. In addition, Hite will become the acting executive director of the Intermediate Unit until a permanent replacement can be found.
In a further break from the Ackerman era, the language of Hite’s contract offers more SRC oversight, which in theory will lead to quicker problem-solving and identification of various school-related trends. The new oversight, however, will not impinge on Hite’s ability to mold the district.
“The SRC, individually and collectively, agree that they will promptly refer to the Superintendent any and all criticism, complaints, suggestions, communications or comments regarding the Superintendent’s performance of his duties for review, investigation and recommendation,” read, in part, the details of Hit’s contract. “Individual members of the SRC will not give direction to the Superintendent regarding the management of the School District, unless acting on behalf of the SRC.
“The Superintendent agrees that he will communicate, confer, and consult on a regular basis with the SRC so as to effectuate his responsibilities.”
Hite’s contract also spells out exactly what is to happen if either Hite or the school district decide to part ways — and what’s to be done if Hite proves inadequate and must be fired. In essence, both parties can mutually walk away at any time.
“In the event of [just cause] termination, the School District shall be required to pay Dr. Hite any salary, reimbursements, other payments and benefits due and owing through the effective date of the termination, “ read the termination clause in Hite’s contract. “But Dr. Hite shall not be entitled to receive any further salary payments, contributions or other benefits accruing after the effective date of termination.”
The SRC holds the right to release Hite if called for by majority vote by the SRC members; if that were to happen, Hite would be due his full annual salary. Hite, if he were to leave the district under amicable terms, would have to give 90 days’ advance notice; after those 90 days, Hite will not receive any further pay.
School district officials and SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos were unavailable for comment about the contract, and City Controller Allan Butkovitz hadn’t returned calls for comment by Tribune deadline.
In terms of pay, Knudsen will be paid $27,000 monthly through November, while assuming the role of chief financial officer. Once Hite assumes office, Knudsen’s pay will decrease to $22,500.
“In addition … Mr. Knudsen shall continue to serve as Acting Superintendent and Acting Executive Director of Philadelphia Intermediate Unit No. 26 and Acting Chief Financial Officer and Acting Chief Business Officer of the School District and Acting Executive Director of Intermediate Unit No. 26,” read the ratified resolution, “until such time as Dr. William R. Hite, Jr. assumes his full-time duties and responsibilities as Superintendent and as Acting Executive Director of Philadelphia Intermediate Unit No. 26.”
For Hite, however, the concern lies with the work before him, not the contract he just signed.
“We create a structure that allows for a low of engagement and involvement across multiple communities. Community engagement is a critical part of the work — not just going out and telling people what we can do next, but really talking very passionate and in depth about that. Also extend to people the same information we have,” Hite said. “I also want to send a message to students and employees; I appreciate your sacrifice and patience and I assure you better days are ahead.”
The ghosts of administrations’ past continue to haunt the Philadelphia School District, as former District executive John L. Byars filed a civil suit against the District over his December 2010 firing.
Such a move couldn’t come at a worse time from the District’s standpoint, as it is in the midst of searching for a new superintendent and still dealing with the drawn-out process of closing multiple ineffective or obsolete schools.
In his suit, Byars alleges that he was made the scapegoat when news broke of the District’s decision to award a $7.5 million, no-bid contract to minority communications firm IBS Communications, Inc. He alleges that former superintendent Arlene Ackerman was the force behind the contract going to IBS instead of the Bucks County-based Security & Data Technologies firm, and believes that the ensuing firestorm cost Byars his job.
The suit, filed last Wednesday in the Pennsylvania Eastern District Court, names Ackerman, Leroy D. Nunery II, Robert Archie Jr., Denise McGregor Armbrister, Joseph Dworetzky, Johnny Irizarry, Estelle G. Mathews, Jamilah Fraser, Shana Kemp, the School Reform Commission and the School District of Philadelphia as defendants.
Interestingly, along with being named in the suit, Dworetzky was recently appointed as a member of the SRC’s search team for a new superintendent; Nunery is currently serving as the interim school superintendent.
The no-bid contract to provide video surveillance and other technical support that was awarded to IBS seemed murky from the outset. Byars alleges that Ackerman had a personal relationship with IBS’ president; previously, Ackerman admitted that she directed that the firm be included in a much smaller contract to install cameras at South Philadelphia High School.
School district spokesman Fernando Gallard declined comment; Ackerman is now living and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she serves as CEO and president of the Ackerman Education Strategies Group.
Bu this wouldn’t be the first time Ackerman has faced a lawsuit in her position as school chief.
In a case with stunning similarities, Ackerman, while serving as superintendent of the San Francisco School District, she was named in a lawsuit for illegal contracts. Ackerman received a payout of more than of $375,000 as part of her settlement package with the SFSD — only to apply for unemployment compensation after receiving the settlement. Ackerman also sued the SFSD for $172,000 for what she said were unpaid bonuses; Ackerman eventually dropped that lawsuit.
According to Byars’ suit, when word leaked in November of 2010 that various media outlets were preparing an exposé on the District’s contract with IBS, Ackerman, Nunery and at least two other school officials devised the plan that led to Byars eventual ouster. Byars, along with five other school officials, were suspended with pay in late 2010.
Leroy Nunery seeks continued test score growth, better rapport with union
In a wide-ranging meeting with The Philadelphia Tribune earlier this week, acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery spoke optimistically about his future with the Philadelphia School District, enthusiastically about getting students up to speed in a digital age, with trepidation about the relationship between the district and the city’s teachers’ union, and not at all about his role in the Martin Luther King High School quagmire.
The runner-up to former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for the job in 2008, Nunery, who has lived and worked in the city for the last 13 years, said if he does not succeed in his present job, there is no need to even think about leading the country’s eighth-largest school district.
“I’m not going to put any further thought into it,” Nunery said. “If I don’t do the job that I’m tasked with doing today, then it won’t matter in three or four months, so that’s where I am.
“Do I believe I have the qualifications? Yes,” said Nunery, adding that he has not spoken with Mayor Michael Nutter about the job. “I’ve already been vetted through the process once. I’ve been in this seat and, quite frankly, I’m doing my old job as deputy superintendent in the current job as acting superintendent at the same time.”
Nunery, who served as Ackerman’s deputy for 14 months before she agreed to a $905,000 buyout of her contract in August, knows that there will be a national search to fill the position.
He does, however, think that he has shown the commitment required to do the job. For years he worked with Edison Schools in New York, but continued to raise his family here.
“I’ve been around a lot of folks, from labor union heads to presidents of universities, community leader and public officials,” Nunery said.
“That doesn’t mean that those things are going to buffer me, but at least I know my way around town. It’s not starting from scratch; it’s more about having a running start and there are some real advantages to that. But if I don’t get the superintendent’s job, if I decide that I’m interested in it, I’ll still be in education because this is what I’ve been called to do. As for the national search, the whole idea of looking for the best talent is something that the city is owed.”
Nunery spoke glowingly about the smooth start to the school year. However, he acknowledged that the budget cuts — the result of the effort to close the $680 million budget gap — have left the district with a skeleton staff. Cuts have reduced staff at central headquarters on Broad Street by 50 percent.
Overall, the district staff, according to Nunery, has been reduced by 30 percent.
Since schools opened last month, Nunery has busied himself by “getting out to as many schools as possible in the community, meeting with business and community leaders.”
Whether or not Nunery ultimately becomes the superintendent, the disparity and apparent inequity in the awarding of contracts to city businesses will continue to be an issue. As recently as 2003, in an overwhelmingly African-American school district, minority and women-owned businesses just got 2 percent of the pie. An anti-discrimination policy adopted that year boosted that number to 27 percent in 2010. However, fewer than half of those dollars went to African-American contractors.
Nunery said that African-Americans must do a better job of providing the goods and services that the school district needs. He used as an example the purchasing of textbooks, saying that not a lot of African-American companies sell text books.
In the past, African-American companies, according to Nunery, have benefitted in areas of providing social and support services. But in order to receive a larger piece of the pie, Nunery said, businesses will have to provide the services that the budget-strapped district requires.
“There will be more opportunities in construction, retrofitting buildings and things of that nature. That is where you are going to have more opportunities. We have got to turn some of these buildings into more energy-efficient buildings. So there are going to be a lot of opportunities for local businesses.”
Although Nunery says the district is not where it wants to be in terms of graduation rates and improving academic performance, it can point to nine straight years of rising test scores.
Nunery says this is not enough. He said that too many children are graduating from schools — not just in Philadelphia, but all over the country — needing remedial help once they get to college. He referred to a recent conversation with a local administrator in which he was told that three-fourths of the students coming out the school district need remedial assistance, mostly, he says, in technical areas.
“We have to get our kids up to speed in the areas of science, technology, math and science so that the district can be more market responsive,” he said. “We want our children to be more digitally proficient. If that is going to happen, the teachers are going to require more training in that area. It’s that simple.”
Nunery also hopes to develop a better working relationship with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. He knows that the union does not favor teacher evaluations — the city’s union chose not to participate in the state’s pilot program.
However, Gov. Tom Corbett, in releasing his education agenda earlier this week, highlighted improved standards in teacher evaluations as one of his main goals.
“This is coming, the whole idea of teacher evaluations.” said Nunery, adding that he has had a number of good conversations with union boss Jerry Jordan. “The conversation for us is about getting both sides on the same side.”
What isn’t coming any time soon from Nunery is an explanation of what he meant when describing a meeting about Martin Luther King High School becoming a charter school as being like a scene from “The Godfather.”
Nunery attended the meeting — along with state Rep. Dwight Evans, former School Reform Commission Chair Robert L. Archie and Mosaica Turnaround Partners President John Porter. Mosaica had been chosen to manage King over Evans’ charter partner, Foundations Inc., just hours earlier.
Mosaica backed out following that meeting, King never became a charter, and last month a scathing report out of the mayor’s office determined that Archie’s and Evans’ actions were inappropriate.
“What I said is in the report,” said Nunery, refusing further comment.