If School Reform Commission officials were caught a little flat-footed during a recent community meeting at Enon Baptist Church in which more than 2,500 people attended, then they should be prepared for a Tuesday May 22 meeting at 6:30 at Bright Hope Baptist Church, 12th St. and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
SRC officials can expect the same sort of probing questions they received from attendees during the Enon meeting; only this time several other organizations are taking part, including Occupy Philly, ACTION United and the Service Employees International Union, which represents the majority of school district employees not covered by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The Bright Hope meeting represents the next in a series of community-orchestrated meetings, in which neighborhood leaders gather with other concerned stakeholders to discuss the School District of Philadelphia’s plan. Although not an officially sanctioned meeting of the SRC, district officials are often invited — and often do attend.
The meeting is bound to revolve around District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen’s drastic reorganization blueprint, which calls for the closure of 64 schools, the privatization of crucial scholastic and academic services and a complete restructuring of the programs and offices at district headquarters downtown, among other measures meant to bring the district to a state of solvency.
“We are facing an education emergency in Philadelphia. Outside consultants are proposing to destroy the Philadelphia Public School System and cut thousands of living-wage jobs,” said activist Rita Addessa in an email to supporters, which cited other blueprint moves such as turning many of the remaining public schools into private charters. “The proposal does not talk about things that are known to work in improving education: lowering class sizes, [having] a highly qualified, experienced teacher in every classroom, and clean and safe schools.”
Also up for discussion will be District Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon’s own plan for academic restructuring, which will alter not only the way principals run and manage their schools, but the way teachers deliver instruction as well.
“Officials have laid out their plan, and folks are unhappy, but we really haven’t heard a lot about an alternate vision,” said Roland Ferguson, of the Southwest Chapter of ACTION United. “That’s what we are going to do on Tuesday. People not only want to hear about the proposed changes, they want to make sure the needs of their children and their neighborhoods are being considered in the process. We’re going to lay out an alternative to the plan that includes the priorities of the community, parents and students.”
Bright Hope Baptist Church pastor D. Kevin R. Johnson will lead the meeting, during which members of the community will present photos, drawings and essays from area public school students depicting what they believe a good school should look like and include.
School funding is bound to be a hotly-contested issue, especially given Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s recent remarks, where he essentially blamed school districts throughout the commonwealth for fiscal mismanagement; Corbett also claimed that many school districts are sitting on reserves that they could tap into in order to save crucial programs.
School district officials have denied the district has any surplus or reserves, and confirmed that it is still experiencing a budgetary shortfall for the current year — and is still predicting a major gap for the next academic year.
“We reject the notion that there is no money for schools when they are building new prisons,” Ferguson said. “We need our officials to be listening to the community and looking for creative solutions, rather than trying to solve the funding crisis on the backs of students, or by outsourcing jobs.
“The people that work in the schools are parents and neighbors too.”
City looking into former superintendent’s claim she was ‘advised’ to change her charter decision
Former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is no longer the central figure charged with educating the more than 155,000 students in the district, but her influence continues to run far and wide in the city.
Almost a month after she and the School Reform Commission agreed on her contract buyout, Ackerman has shifted attention to another unseemly School District situation — the Martin Luther King charter fiasco.
Specifically, Ackerman told The Notebook.org, a blog that covers the Philadelphia public schools, that Mayor Michael Nutter already has the results of an investigation into the controversy. It was back in April that Nutter announced an investigation into the situation headed by Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman.
“I think it’s tragic and unconscionable, that the story hasn’t been told yet,” Ackerman told the Notebook earlier this week.
According to the office of the mayor, that day is coming within the next two weeks, maybe less. Until that time, though, Ackerman and others will have to wait a little bit longer.
“The report from the chief integrity officer to the mayor will be released shortly,” mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said. “It would be premature to talk about anything particular to that whole issue at this point.”
With the resignation on Monday of School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie, Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg says that the public is due an answer now.
“It is my understanding that the Markman report is in [the mayor’s] hands, and I think it should be released,” said the president of the watchdog organization. “Not releasing it sends a bad message on top of the other bad messages that have already been sent. The decision of who is going to be the operator of Martin Luther King High School has been closely watched since Easter. It would clear up at least one of the clouds hanging over the school district if the mayor released the report.”
Archie’s resignation, Stalberg says, just raises more questions begging to be answered.
“Now that Archie has resigned, the public has the right to know whether or not the findings of the report had anything to do with his resignation.”
At the core of the controversy was the battle between Foundations, Inc., an organization with which state Rep. Dwight Evans has deep ties, and Mosaica Education out of Atlanta. It was reported last April that Evans — in a closed-door meeting, allegedly convinced Mosaica to back out of the five-year, $12 million contract it had been awarded so that Foundations could have it.
While she gives no specifics, Ackerman painted a picture of arm-twisting and political backroom deals being made that superseded the wants, needs and desires of the parents and children of Martin Luther King High.
Of that situation, Ackerman told The Notebook that she felt pressured on more than one occasion to endorse Foundations, Inc. over Mosaica. She added that she “was told by someone that if I didn’t get my mind right about this Foundations situation, that something would be leaked about my finances.”
Not long after she was allegedly given this directive, Fox29 News aired a report that showed she owed more $20,000 in back taxes. Ackerman’s tax attorney works at Duane Morris LLP. Archie is also a partner at Duane Morris, and a close associate of Evans.
The SRC voted to award Mosaica — which had been the choice of an advisory panel of King parents and community leaders — the contract on March 16. Scant hours later, Archie, who said he was acting in his official capacity, called a meeting of all parties despite his obvious conflict of interest — Duane Morris had represented Foundations before.
Shortly after Archie’s role became public, Foundations withdrew its bid for the contract. A long-suffering school that has struggled academically, King today is run by the school district as a Promise Academy.
At the time the decision was made, Ackerman appeared neutral on the issue. Now it appears that her support was for Mosaica all along, and she wants the story told.
“I think the public needs to know exactly what happened so that this won’t happen again,” Ackerman said.
When Nutter launched the investigation into the King controversy, he spoke in urgent terms of getting to the bottom of the situation. However, in the days, weeks and now months that have passed — that sense of urgency has waned.
Meanwhile, the SRC is still shrouded in mystery. When the SRC bought out Ackerman’s contract at $905,000, $405,000 came from anonymous donors. The privacy of those anonymous donors stirred a furor in the city that eventually the public donors reneged on the money, leaving the school district — and taxpayers — to foot the bill.
Two members of the embattled School Reform Commission are leaving their posts. Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. resigned Monday and Johnny Irizarry was expected to follow suit.
“I am resigning as chairman and as a member of the School Reform Commission, a very distinguished and hard working body of volunteers, effective immediately,” Archie, who is also a Tribune board member, said in a statement.
Irizarry confirmed that he would be stepping down but declined to comment before an announcement by Mayor Michael Nutter.
Archie, along with state Rep. Dwight Evans, is the subject of an investigation by the city’s integrity office as Mayor Michael Nutter seeks to find out exactly what happened during the Philadelphia School District’s attempt to turn Martin Luther King High School into a charter school.
Nutter, who appointed both men in March 2009, ordered the investigation into Archie in April. Though he promised a report “as soon as possible,” the city has not yet released its findings.
He was expected to make a public statement Monday afternoon.
Often, nurses are the first line of defense for a sick child in public schools, and according to the nurses who hold weekly rallies on Wednesday outside of the School District of Philadelphia headquarters, the children they serve will be most affected by the ongoing cuts.
“The day before we broke for winter break, we received notice that 47 nurses were to be laid off, and that’s on top of the 47 or so that were laid off last year,” said longtime school nurse Eileen Duffey, one of the main organizers of the weekly rally. “So we lost close to 100 nurses; and in December, we heard the school district had to cut the budget, and it didn’t do any kind of big look at the picture, or look at the most important things that couldn’t be cut.
“They just said there had to be cuts because the school district is in the hole so badly.”
The school district was required to take drastic action after it was discovered that the district faced a $68 million dollar budget gap that had to be closed by the end of the academic fiscal year, which falls in June. To meet its financial obligations, the district had to undertake a series of painful austerity measures, including slashing many after-school programs, shuttering school buildings and attached recreation centers on weekends, furloughing per diem security personnel and cutting the number of school nurses working in the district.
Making matters worse, City Controller Alan Butkovitz spared no feelings in a scathing report recently issued by his office, stating that the controller didn’t have confidence that the school budget could turn around for this year, while setting an ominous outlook for next year’s school budget.
By taking these measures, the district has been able to cut this year’s budget gap by more than half — it now sits at $28 million.
School spokesman Fernando Gallard acknowledges the district made these cuts, but says the district had no choice.
“These are cuts we did not want to make, did not plan to take and only made them to offset the tremendous, challenging budget gap we’re facing,” Gallard said. “And we’re still working on closing the budget gap for this year, and unfortunately, it forces us to make choices we wouldn’t have made otherwise.”
Gallard said the district’s current financial woes are something school officials do not want to revisit, and that’s why these measures must be taken up now.
“It is a situation we don’t want to ever be in again,” Gallard said. “But in order to balance the budget, we had to make these difficult cuts. And we have put together a plan to make sure schools have adequate [nurse] coverage.”
The nurses’ rally outside of district headquarters has drawn the support of prominent politicians — including state Representative W. Curtis Thomas — who endorses the demonstrations.
“School nurses are intertwined in the present and future of a quality education experience,” said the lawmaker through a statement released by his office.
Duffey — a pediatric nurse for 30 years before becoming a school nurse 10 years ago — is sympathetic to the position the district finds itself in, but believes by cutting medical personnel, sick students will be left to pay the price.
“I am taking care of 1,500 students in three schools; this goes back to an old law from the 1940s that stipulates a 1,500-1 nurse-patient ratio,” Duffey said. “The national Association of Nurses says schools should have a 750-1 ratio, but that’s only a recommendation; they can’t force policy or legislation.
“I am in a school with four autistic support classes, and I am there only once a week.”
Duffey said it’s the nurses who keep all the confidential medical records of patients, and no one — including the principal — has access to them; and while other school officials are busy with groups of kids for practically the entire day, the nurse can take his or her time with a student and develop a one-on-one relationship.
“I used to be part of teams that would sit back and look at the big picture. A nurse is the only true patient-student advocate,” Duffey said. “Not that the others don’t care; but a principal has other people he has to answer to, and a teacher has to manage 33 other students. A nurse deals with one patient at a time, and is trained as a professional to advocate for the patient.
“The nurses’ eyes are the eyes that protect a vulnerable student.”
Duffey says she works in three schools — George W. Nebinger, Stephen Girard and Academy at Palumbo — and refuses to sit back while the district is hijacked by the bottom dollar.
“We’re like a colony being taken over by the state, and the School Reform Commission is at the mercy of the governor,” Duffey said. “I do not mind sticking my neck out for our children, because we have a governor is who is unbelievably mean-spirited toward vulnerable children.”
Enon pastor sends letter criticizing Pedro Ramos
School district officials have expressed a willingness to work with Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church senior pastor Rev. Alyn E. Waller in response to a letter from the pastor which blasts School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos.
The letter references Waller’s characterization of Ramos as “arrogant” and that he “cannot be trusted.”
“After the turmoil and controversy that surrounded the previous SRC and the School District of Philadelphia’s leaders, several community leaders, including myself, determined that we should be more helpful to you as you worked to get the schools back on track,” read a portion of Waller’s letter. “In very short order, however, many of the same concerns and complaints began to surface. Giving you the benefit of the doubt instead of joining in with the cries of discontent, we assumed the posture of communication leaders. Perhaps you were not hearing/understanding what was being said. To that end, the Enon Town Hall Meeting was set up and crucial questions needing responses from you were developed and very specific questions would begin an honest dialogue and the development of trust that has long since eroded between you and the community.”
Waller was referencing a recent meeting in which SRC members appeared flustered by the probing questions from the community members in attendance.
“I believe Pedro Ramos to be a good man, and I’m engaged in the critique of the process and product, not of him personally,” Waller said, when contacted by The Tribune Friday evening, June 8.
“We know that we have to right size. We recognize that at some point, some schools are going to have to close — demographics have changed in Philadelphia. We recognize public education will not look like public education that many of us in our 40 and 50s grew up with, and so all of that is clear.”
“Reorganization is a necessary part of the health of any institution, and we just want to make sure that this process has been informed by as wide an investment in the community and we don’t think that the best efforts have yet come out in terms of community engagement and trust,” Waller added.
It’s no secret that the SRC is reeling from intense community pressure. It has authored a series of unpopular cuts to staff and school resources, while also making a series of public relations blunders in regard to school closings and the scuttling of several programs.
“I listen to the consequences of your behavior daily as members of my congregation and our community laments the failure of public education and the negative impact on the future of our children. We hear the helplessness in the voices of parents and others who worry about the viability of the city, as the less than well-educated populous tries to make Philadelphia stronger but are ill-equipped to champion necessary change,” Waller’s letter concluded.
“Yes, we can see the consequences of your lack of effective action and stand together to let you know our resolve. We will challenge your lack of effectiveness and marshaling the citizens of this city in ways you have never seen, as we protect and defend our children’s right to a good public education.”
In an emailed response sent by school district spokesperson Evelyn Sample-Oates, officials indicated that they intend to work cooperatively with Waller.
“Chairman Ramos and other officials at the School District of Philadelphia have received the letter and intend to work closely with Reverend Waller and members of the Education Committee from Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church to help the public school students of Philadelphia,” the email stated.
“Our number one goal is to make sure that our children have safe and high achieving schools. The School District of Philadelphia will engage the entire community to transform our schools, realizing that this is a matter that involves the whole city of Philadelphia. We appreciate the feedback from Reverend Waller and look forward to working closely with him and his team.”
Mayor Michael Nutter wasted no time in filling one of the seats on the School Reform Commission, naming Wendell E. Pritchett, the chancellor at Rutgers–Camden, to fill a post.
Pritchett joins the SRC at a time when the organization is experiencing major upheaval. On Monday, two members of the embattled SRC — Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and Johnny Irizarry — stepped down from their posts.
“I am very pleased to appoint someone with the qualifications, the imagination and the commitment to public education of Wendell Pritchett,” Nutter said in a statement. “He has demonstrated real leadership in the areas of education, local government and sustainable community development for many years.”
Pritchett served as deputy chief of staff and director of policy for Nutter. He was responsible for writing the city’s Five-Year Plan and Budget, reorganizing the city’s anti-poverty programs and managing operations of the mayor’s office, according to Nutter’s statement.
Barely a week has passed since the School Reform Commission publicized its controversial, “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” and charter school leaders are letting it be known they will fight any plan that attacks per-pupil funding or forces charters schools to adopt an enrollment cap.
Specifically, charter school educators are taking umbrage with the SRC’s plan to slash $149 million from charter school funding, which represents a whopping seven percent drop in per-pupil funding. The plan also calls for a three-year freeze on per-pupil payments, and finally, the enforcement of a mutually agreed upon growth schedule. SRC officials believe it can balance its budget in five years if these and other cuts are implemented.
“In my view, the [budget] issue should not be balanced on the backs of charter schools. The reality is, I don’t go along with that, and it’s not acceptable,” said state Representative Dwight Evans, who was among the leaders of the charter school movement nearly two decades ago, when he introduced legislation supporting the charter model. “First, let’s be clear, this is supposed to be about kids and parents, and there’s nothing in the law that gives the SRC the legal ability to [arbitrarily reduce payments]. There is nothing in the act, one way or the other, for the district to do this.”
Evans was referring to the Act 22 Charter School Legislation of 1997, and most charter proponents point to subsection 17-1723 (d), which states that, “enrollment of students in a charter school or cyber charter school shall not be subject to a cap or otherwise limited to any past or future action of a board of school directors … or any other authority, unless agreed to by the charter school or cyber charter school as part of a written charter.”
“We fought 15 years to get that law passed; 15 years we fought for the parents to have options, and we won’t let the school district mess with the kids,” Evans said, crediting longtime educator and attorney Dr. Walter D. Palmer as being an early leading protagonist of the cause. “The school district has its own ineptness, but we will not let them do this.
“Politically, they must not think of bringing this through Harrisburg, because I wouldn’t support it,” Evans said.
Palmer, at the forefront of the charter issue for almost three decades and who served as major supporter of the mid-’90s legislation, recently took the school district to court over the district’s attempts to cap enrollment at his successful Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. According to Palmer, the school district has unfairly targeted the charter school system while ignoring both the achievements and gains made by the charters — and the district’s own mismanagement of resources and funds.
“The district has been repressive to charter schools for at least ten years,” Palmer said, placing much of the blame of the perceived public school — charter school friction at the feet of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman and former SRC chairman Robert Archie. “All of this is really an all-out assault on the charter school movement, but [the SRC] cannot circumvent the court.”
Palmer has defied the SRC’s cap measure by continuing to accept students, and billing the state directly. Twice, Palmer said, the courts have agreed with him, and ruled the district must reimburse Leadership Learning more than $1.3 million in outstanding per-pupil payments. The district is currently exhausting its appeals in that matter and Palmer expects a ruling sometime next month.
Palmer recently testified in a City Council hearing helmed by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who is also the chair of Council’s education committee. There, Palmer made a series of suggestions to the SRC that he believes would help correct the problem.
“I suggested one of the things they do is completely dismantle renaissance schools, which are not charters. They are failed public schools that are reconstituted by the district and controlled by the district, but they then ask a charter school operator to come in and operate them; they are not charter schools,” Palmer said. “Then, I suggested they take those schools and turn them into promise academies. I also said they need to consolidate the mothballed schools; you have William Penn High School on Broad Street that’s sitting empty and costs a fortune to maintain.”
Some of the plans Palmer and other educators suggested — some going back years, if not decades — have finally made their way into the SRC’s reorganization blueprint, such as downsizing the central office; decentralizing certain services and generally trying to trim operations. But the decision to make these cuts came years after continual warnings.
Palmer said the school district really doesn’t have an excuse; the charter school legislation has been in place since 1997, and instead of working in conjunction with charter schools, it seems to him the district is bent on destroying them.
“Stop trying to bash charter schools,” Palmer said. “What we are experiencing now is a white hostile takeover of Black education in America. Folks have realized there are millions and millions to be made [in corporate education] right in the heart of the Black community, and this is happening in urban Black districts with Black folks on their watch.”
The issue of capped enrollment is very real; and doesn’t just affect Philadelphia and its stable of charter schools, as the Chester Upland Charter School recently won the right to uncapped enrollment. Basically, if a charter school is allowed uncapped enrollment, it can then theoretically build other schools to house the added enrollment, provided they meet staffing, safety and academic guidelines.
“They’ve gotten to a point where the school district is bankrupt; why should charters have to pay for the school district’s inability to manage its budget?” said Dr. Veronica Joyner, founder and chief administrative officer of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School of Philadelphia. “And now, [the SRC] is giving us less. Are they expecting the charters to fail, since they are taking money away instead of rewarding us?”
Like Palmer’s school, MCSCS has made Adequate Yearly Progress in consecutive years, and both its financial and academic records are strong. Joyner, like Palmer, is worried about the possibility of working with fewer funds.
“I am totally concerned about that,” said Joyner, who also serves as president and founder of Parents United for Better Schools, Inc. “The school district already takes almost 30 percent of the allotment given to us by the state. Now they want us to contribute more money when it’s not our failure. Charters are doing good, and there should be more support, not less.”
Joyner said she has a waiting list 7,000-plus students’ strong, which points to the academic prowess of her school. She believes that charters are a unique educational necessity that warrants saving.
“We’re talking about a school district that has failed,” Joyner said. “That budget didn’t just creep up on them like that — it’s been creeping up on them for years, and I am appalled no one saw that and did anything about it. We are already operating on much less than the public schools do. Now they are going to cut us, and expect us to do a better job with less.
“This is not fair to charter school operators, or the families we serve,” Joyner continued. “Because we are expected to do a better job than public schools — and we’ve shown that we are capable of doing that — we should have more support.”
Instead of aiming at charter schools, Joyner said, more attention should be paid to the district’s hierarchy and its plans for a new leader, since direction will no doubt come from on high. Joyner has been in education for more than 40 years, and senses a recurring pattern by the SRC.
“The district usually goes outside of Philadelphia to find a superintendent, and that has always been its first failure,” Joyner said. “My concern is we keep getting people who, on paper, can do these things, but come in and leave the district in a worse state. There are people right here in Philadelphia who can lead the district. I question [the SRC’s] motives.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan wasted little time in blasting the School Reform Commission’s decision to expand its 2012–2013 school year charter school offerings in the face of an epic budgetary gap, approaching $300 million for the coming school year.
Writing in his blog, Jordan ridiculed Office of Charter, Partnership and New Schools Deputy Chief Thomas Darden’s recent decision, saying Darden and the SRC are going back to the sort of decision-making that led to the current malaise.
“[Last] Friday, the district’s charter school office chief conceded that the charter expansions approved so far this year could cost $139 million over five years — $100 million more than he originally stated. So, on top of a looming $282 million deficit, the school district is spending another $38 million, and making $100 million math mistakes? Clearly, the charter school expansion agenda has trumped fiscal soundness,” read Jordan’s statement, in part. “The current deficit is a major obstacle to reforming a school system that was already struggling to serve our children. With a new projected deficit of over $300 million, it’s time to abandon this high-cost, low-return reform model our kids have been subjected to. Kudos to School Reform Commissioners Joseph Dworetzky and Lorene Cary for voting against adding another $139 million to the school deficit, and advocating for a research-backed, school-based approach to education reform.
“We can save money and get better results by working with and supporting our own educators and administrators. They, after all, are trained to do what we’re trying to accomplish: devise strategies to give our children the education they need,” Jordan’s statement continued. “The District cannot afford the latest round of charter expansions, but if the SRC insists on spending millions of dollars, our students and teachers could certainly benefit more from additional classroom materials and technology; safer school buildings; afterschool programs and social services.”
The district currently has 80 charter schools on its roster.
School Reform Commission Spokesman Fernando Gallard said that Darden had misunderstood the question, and took umbrage at the assumption the district doesn’t know what it is doing with its funds.
“Well, I think it needs to be put in context. The $38 million was for a specific number of schools, not for all of the schools under consideration,” Gallard said. “What happened was Darden was asked about the costs of seats. When he answered the question, he was looking at those schools and not [the total of charter] schools.
“That $38 million, Darden was talking about the cost of adding four charter schools and not all of the charters under consideration,” Gallard continued. “So from the beginning of this process, when Darden was doing his presentation of what costs might look like before expansions, he put a number of $100 million total.
“So the idea that the district did not know what the possible costs of the expansion would be is not correct.”
Still, Gallard confirmed that the district will spend $139 million for the expansion of its charter school program, and it is that number and the methodology involved which has irked both Jordan and legislators.
Lawmakers statewide have sought to reform charter school oversight and funding. House Bill 2352 is but one of several pieces of legislation that will add layers of checks and balances to the charter school system, as would HB 2364, otherwise known as the Charter and Cyber Charter Reform law.
State Rep. James Roebuck has been a proponent of both pieces of legislation and of charter school reform on the whole, and believes the SRC would do well to rethink its position on funding charter school expansion.
“I’ve had no direct communication on that issue [with the SRC], but it seems to me, given the economic pressures on the district, they would be wise to assess where they are going,” Roebuck said, “and assess where [the district] needs to be before expanding charters or doing anything else.”
Roebuck had intimated that charter school reform will be a main topic once the General Assembly reconvenes in September.
HB 2364, introduced by Rep. Mike Fleck and endorsed by Roebuck, would severely reduce the statewide funding of charter and cyber charter schools.
“At a time when public schools are still coping with last year’s state education funding cuts and local property taxpayers want to avoid another round of trickle-down tax hikes, it’s only fair to taxpayers for all schools to play by the same rules,” Roebuck said when he announced his support of the measure. “These reforms [included in HB 2364] … provide this relief immediately to school districts and their taxpayers. These reforms would provide at least $45.8 million in savings for the coming school year, and probably much more than that.”
With all that’s been going on in our fair city lately, you may have forgotten that there’s a major election less than six weeks away. I think this time around the incumbents prefer it that way.
The School District of Philadelphia, and the School Reform Commission that runs it, have squandered whatever public goodwill they still had. School superintendent Dr. Arlene Ackerman got her nearly million-dollar payout, and instead of going away quietly, has lobbed incendiary grenades at everyone she feels is responsible for her ouster.
Most people would be lounging in a beach chair, sipping on some fruity rum drink with a tiny umbrella in it and toasting their good fortune, but not Ackerman.
She has implicated SRC chair Bob Archie, Mayor Michael Nutter and state Rep. Dwight Evans, among others, as major players in this shameful fiasco that just won’t go away. If she’s telling the truth, those three guys are guilty of serious ethical breaches and violations of the public trust, if not outright crimes.
Archie, partner at Duane Morris, one of the city’s top law firms, has been a power broker in this town for many, many years. While the general public may have just learned of him since his appointment to the SRC, the movers and shakers have long known Archie, and his reputation for getting deals done.
The problem is, the School District is not a private law firm, and deals made on their behalf are public deals using public monies, secret agendas and closed door meetings have no place in a public entity, even though we all know that in Philly, that’s generally how things work.
But Archie turned in his resignation from the SRC early this week, leaving the School District’s governing body with just two members. (SRC member Johnny Irizarry, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, quit the same day as Archie.) Mayor Nutter quickly appointed old friend and former employee Wendell E. Pritchett, chancellor of Rutgers University, to fill one of the empty slots, but the damage is done, and the District is almost completely rudderless, at least for now.
I don’t know how he’s managed to do it, but so far Nutter seems untouched by this whole stinking mess. After all, the mayor appoints two SRC members, and he certainly played a large role in Ackerman’s departure — the hideous details of which have yet to come to light.
Speaking of which, isn’t this the same mayor who campaigned four years ago on clean government and an end to municipal corruption? Isn’t this the guy who promised us transparency, integrity and accountability in City Hall? Now he’s lobbying local rich folks for Ackerman’s buyout money and keeping it hush-hush, and if Ackerman’s accusations are to be believed, he’s turning a blind eye to corruption by sitting on a report which would blow the lid off the Martin Luther King charter school scandal, and was not averse to holding 5-year-olds ransom by threatening the end of all-day kindergarten simply to advance his political agenda.
Now, it seems to me that a man — especially an incumbent mayor up for re-election in a few short weeks — would vigorously, publicly and immediately defend himself against such vile accusations.
His opponent in November is Democrat-turned-Republican Karen Brown, who has been making some noise herself lately by demanding a number of debates with Nutter before Election Day. Nutter’s people have agreed to only one public forum, which in all honesty makes more sense for them. You don’t give an unknown opponent the opportunity to compete on your level if you’re the incumbent — especially when you’re favored to win by a landslide.
But it does leave a cloud hanging over the election in many ways.
What if the GOP had put up a serious, well-developed candidate in this race? Would Nutter’s confidence level be as high, especially considering the huge pile of hypocrisy and bad faith that has shown up on his doorstep lately?
Nutter will certainly win, and probably by the predicted margin, but when he does his first phone call of thanks should be placed to Vito Canuso and Mike Meehan, the city’s GOP leadership.
By randomly plucking Brown from obscurity rather than grooming, preparing and financing a genuine alternative candidate, Canuso and Meehan have virtually assured Nutter’s re-election at a time when a little healthy competition could have at least raised the level of discourse.
I have the uneasy feeling that we’re about to get exactly what we deserve.
And then there were two.
After a diligent public and private vetting process that lasted several months, the School Reform Commission has narrowed down to two finalists for the coveted — and controversial — position as the next School District of Philadelphia superintendent.
Both Pedro Martinez and Dr. William R. Hite Jr. are accomplished, esteemed educators who bring a good mix of traditional educational practices and cutting-edge methodology and arrive without any of the questions that surrounded predecessor Arlene Ackerman.
The SRC, under fire for its budget and five-year reorganization plan, which has caused several rounds of layoffs and furloughs, wanted to make sure it got this decision correct, regardless of how painstaking the process turned out to be.
“In January, the five SRC commissioners put together a [superintendent] search team, and put together the job description of the best qualities we thought were important,” said SRC Commissioner Wendell E. Pritchett, the point man for this process. “We then engaged in month-long community meetings, where we put the job description out there. We had facilitators at those meetings who created a final report.
“As a result of that final report [from the stakeholders], we expanded the search team and narrowed [the search] down to 15 people,” Pritchett continued. “We brought in 11 for formal interviews, talked to them about the job description and the specific criteria that the community listed, and judged them on that merit.”
After that, Pritchett said, last month the SRC brought back five of those interviewed, where they met with the search team and with the SRC commissioners; four names were then chosen.
“The SRC search team did more investigation, and talked to them yet again,” Pritchett explained. “Then the SRC decided to bring forward these two.”
It would be hard to argue the qualifications of either Martinez or Hite Jr., one of whom will doubtless become the next leader of Philadelphia’s public school system.
Martinez, currently serving as deputy superintendent of the Clark County School District in Nevada, already went through a public vetting of sorts during yesterday’s public forum. Hite Jr. will go through a similar probing today at 6:30 p.m. at district headquarters, 440 N. Broad Street.
For better or worse, fallowing Ackerman will be a daunting feat, but given Martinez’s background, it seems he has the qualifications for the job. The Clark County School District is the 5th largest in the nation, serving 308,000 students while operating a portfolio that contains 257 schools and academic departments. Martinez is credited for the creation of a program which targeted at-risk seniors, earning the district a 65 percent graduation rate while each of that district’s 49 high schools made significant gains.
Martinez’s academic career is extensive.
Martinez began his life’s work as the director of finance for the Archdiocese of Chicago before leaving to become regional superintendent with Chicago Public Schools, where he later served as chief financial officer, overseeing a $5.2 billion dollar budget; of particular interest, while with CPS, Martinez managed to increase its financial reserves from $200 million to more than $450 million. Student proficiency almost doubled during Martinez’s stewardship of CPS.
Before joining Clark County, Martinez served in a similar capacity at Washoe County School District in Nevada, where he controlled 102 of its schools. Martinez also led aggressive academic initiatives there as well, including the implementation of K–12 college and career readiness program, which considerably increased WCSD’s graduation rate.
Like Martinez, Hite Jr. is a career educator hailed for his turnaround skills.
Hite Jr. currently serves as superintendent of the Prince George’s County Public Schools system in Maryland, where he oversees the nation’s eighth-largest school district, one that educates 135,000 students and contains 200 schools in its portfolio.
Hite Jr. served as assistant superintendent for Atlanta’s Cobb County School District before his PGCS appointment, where he was responsible for 15 schools and the academic adequacy of 18,000 students. But Hite Jr. had his greatest successes in Maryland, where he previously served as interim superintendent before officially being named its leader. Hite Jr. is known for his work on the Intensive Support and Intervention Schools to support the most needy schools and at-risk students, while forging a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh.
Of import, Hite Jr. also led PGCS through a massive reorganization, a skill Hite Jr. will need to rely heavily upon if he is chosen as Philadelphia’s superintendent.
“Their bios speak for themselves. Hite Jr. is a superintendent of a complex school district with a high minority enrollment and led his district through a very difficult time,” said Pritchett. “Martinez is a deputy school superintendent in a district that also has a large minority enrollment and has been a leader in moving their agenda, increasing high school graduation and increasing proficiency.”
If either Martinez or Hite Jr. becomes the next superintendent here, it will continue a long trend of hiring outside the city for its leader. Neither former SRC CEO Paul Vallas nor Ackerman had ties to Philadelphia before their respective appointments. But the search team — and by extension, the SRC — weren’t giving a hometown slide to any candidate.
“Locality was an issue, as five of the candidates were from Philadelphia,” Pritchett said. “Choosing a candidate with Philadelphia connections was important, but in the end, we wanted the best candidate, and [Martinez and Hite Jr.] are the best candidates, given what we are facing.”