Bright Hope Baptist Church Pastor Kevin Johnson has heard all of the talk about “turning pages” and transparency coming out of the Philadelphia School District the past week.
He’s seen the School Reform Commission swear in a new member, and he’s seen the appointment, by the mayor and the state, of a pair of executive advisors.
But Johnson wants to see the changes in action, not hear about them from a podium.
“All of this looks good in theory,” said Johnson, who is former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s minister. “But the verdict is still out. It might work for the adults. But the verdict is out on whether or not it will work for the kids.”
On Monday, Mayor Michael Nutter, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis and the SRC held a press conference to reinforce the notion of increased cooperation and collaboration between the city and state to improve the school district. In the days to follow, anyone connected with the school district spoke of a new transparency, something sorely lacking in the school district in recent months.
Johnson hopes this new transparency is not solely about the children, but also the business that is generated by the school district’s $3 billion budget. Referencing the uproar in the city when Ackerman gave a previous no-bid contract for $7.5 million to IBS Communications, Inc — one of many minority firms sidestepped for district business — Johnson hopes that this will no longer be the case in a district that is more than 80 percent African American.
“I’m all for fiscal transparency but I’m also for fiscal equity,” Johnson said. “We can be transparent all we want, but what good is it if minority contractors don’t get their fair share? What good is it if there is no equity?”
On the same page with Johnson is state Rep. Ron Waters. Like Johnson, a supporter of Ackerman, Waters wants more than lip service in every facet of the school district’s operation.
“There has to be transparency in order to build up and keep public trust strong,” Waters said. “Taxpayers are entitled to know how the money is being spent and invested. They should know everything from payrolls to contracts to student achievement.”
Nutter on Tuesday named Lori Shorr, since 2008 the mayor’s chief education officer and the director of the office of the public school family and child advocate, as the city’s executive adviser. Tomalis named Edward Williams, the school district’s former chief academic officer, as the state’s representative. Acting chair Wendell Pritchett, the mayor’s most recent appointee to the SRC, made his debut at the first SRC meeting of the academic year on Wednesday. Nutter is expected to name his next appointee later this month, and gubernatorial appointee Pedro Ramos should go before the state senate for confirmation around Thanksgiving.
And in one final Wednesday move, Craig Carnaroli, executive vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, was chosen to head up the Financial Operations and Systems Working Group, an unpaid position. The SRC will appoint a group of five to nine executives from around the city with expertise on financial, contracting, and personnel matters.
On Wednesday, Shorr and Williams said their role is to offer advice to interim superintendent Leroy Nunery. However, Nunery will “be the man to make the final decisions,” Williams said.
All of these moves are seen as counters to the circus-like operation of the district in recent months. There has been little explanation as to how the district budget gap soared to $629 million. Some have wondered if the strong-arm tactics of former SRC chairman Robert Archie and state Rep. Dwight Evans — detailed in a scathing report by the mayor’s chief integrity officer — warrant criminal charges.
All this, of course, was sandwiched between Ackerman’s SRC-granted contract extension, her refusal to support Evans’ charter takeover of Martin Luther King High School and her subsequent ouster as superintendent, orchestrated by the SRC.
This has activist Elder Pamela Williams making demands.
Before moving on, Williams wants to see the SRC’s books opened for the public going all the way back to its inception in January 2005. Like Johnson, she wants a full accounting of all the districts contracts.
“We say that we are going to be transparent, but where does it start?” Williams asked.
Referring to Shorr, Williams added, “It does not start with the mayor appointing an overseer to watch over Leroy Nunery,” the interim superintendent. “Now everything that happens will be pushed under the rug.”
Williams also believes that district chief financial officer Michael Masch has been given a free ride with regard to the district’s financial woes. Ackerman once described the advice given her by Masch as “mumbo-jumbo.”