J.P. Miranda seeks state rep seat in 197th district, where he was born and raised
The 197th state House District is up for grabs in an upcoming special election — a state Representative seat that was left vacant when Jewell Williams resigned and was elected to become Sheriff of Philadelphia.
There are several candidates who would like to hold that position, among them Jewel Williams, daughter of Philadelphia’s new sheriff, and the venerable T. Milton Street. But J.P. Miranda, a young Democrat who was born, raised and resides in the district, thinks he has what it takes to represent this densely populated and poor section of the city.
“I started at a young age, at 19; City Council President Darrell Clarke brought me onto his staff and he showed me the ropes. He put me to work and allowed me to be creative on some things I wanted to do and get out in the community,” Miranda said. “From there I made the transition to state Senator Shirley Kitchen’s staff. She was another mentor and supporter and taught me very valuable lessons — among them she showed me tough love when I needed it. She guided me and without her influence I don’t think I’d be in this position right now. For the last four to five years I’ve just been doing different events. I think you have to show that you can be a valuable resource to the community before you even consider yourself worthy to run for any elected office. I started with free hair cut events and free book bags. We did holiday food giveaways.”
Miranda served in Clarke’s office as lead community liaison. Under state Senator Shirley Kitchen, he served as community liaison specializing in economic development and education.
At age 26, Miranda is already something of a role model. He’s never been arrested and has never been to prison, although his father was absent from his life. He was born and raised in the North Philadelphia area he wants to represent in Harrisburg. He was raised by a single mother who had six other children and yet didn’t turn down a path of self-destruction that so many other young Black men his age have chosen.
“I don’t think any other candidate who wants this seat has the governmental experience I’ve had, or the mentorship that I’ve been blessed with. I’ve been a resource for the community. Recently I did another Day of Respect. It’s an event of police and community interaction day when we shut down Erie Avenue — I don’t know of any other candidate who’s done something like that. We all know that in some of our communities there’s a lot of tension between the younger residents and the police. This was an opportunity for residents of the neighborhoods in the District to build relationships. We shut down Erie Avenue and put a stage out there with free food. And the police weren’t there to just stand guard, no — they had to interact with the people. It’s the 4th year the event has been going on, and even if we’re able to just get kids to be cordial to police officers, it helps because it gets rid of that tension. That’s what I try to be about, changing mentalities. You have to start at the basic level.”
Miranda credits after school programs with helping to keep him off the streets. He attended William Penn High School and furthered his education at West Chester University, where he majored in political science.
“We need after school programs, and right now because of state budget cuts, many of them will disappear. Mentoring does have an impact; I’m proof of that, and after school programs keep young people from getting involved in criminal activity — and I’m proof of that,” he said. “They continue to cut funding for needed programs, but increase funding for prisons — which makes no sense to me. I was able to see that there are options, and a lot of our young men and women don’t think they have options. Now yes, many of them aren’t going to listen, but a good many of them will. It can make a tremendous difference.”
The special elections will be held along with the state’s April 24 primary election. Democrat Jewell Williams gave up his seat in the 197th House District to become Philadelphia Sheriff, and Democrat Kenyatta Johnson and Republican Dennis O’Brien also stepped down from their 186th and 169th District seats to serve on City Council. Miranda said he hopes he’ll be given the chance to fill the void left by Williams.
“This is my community. I need to help make a change. Some of these young people need mentorship and leadership to make them understand that running to the streets isn’t the answer. Holding a gun in your hand makes someone feel powerful. We need to change that and help them redirect that energy. Going to school beats going to prison any day, and that’s what I preach to my peers,” he said.
For more information about Jose Miranda’s views and political platform, visit www.josemiranda2012.com.
Casino celebrates first anniversary, hopes to add 500 jobs to region
SugarHouse Casino is gearing up for a large-scale expansion project.
Casino officials marked the first year anniversary by announcing preliminary plans to significantly expand the gaming operation.
The expansion would include 700 construction jobs and bring an estimated 500 new permanent full and part-time jobs to SugarHouse, bringing the total workforce to 1,500 personnel.
“This will bring our total investment in Philly’s first and only casino to over $500 million,” SugarHouse General Manager Wendy Hamilton said in regards to the expansion project.
“These expansion concepts are essential for realizing the ultimate vision of having SugarHouse serve as a full service gaming and entertainment destination here on the Delaware River Waterfront.”
The expansion plans — which are pending regulatory approval — would more than double SugarHouse’s complex to approximately 250,000 gross square feet. The project calls for an attached seven floor parking garage that allows for more than 500 additional spaces, the expansion of the gaming floor from 51,000 square feet to approximately 90,000 square feet, and a poker room.
The expansion would include space for up to four new waterfront restaurant concepts. The casino’s public river walk will also increase in size to allow for a longer bike path and more landscaped waterfront access. The new construction will also include space for a second-story ballroom, with riverfront views.
Construction on the project is slated to begin in the summer of 2012, with anticipated completion by fall 2013.
When SugarHouse was gearing up to open its doors in September 2010, it faced opposition from community groups who were concerned that the casino would negatively impact their neighborhoods.
City politicians, representatives of community and business groups turned out to mark SugarHouse’s first year anniversary.
Councilman Darrell Clarke, whose district includes an area across from the casino, noted the challenge of bringing SugarHouse to North Delaware Avenue.
“Through it all, there were a special group of people who said we need to have a conversation. They understood that when you are talking about 1,000 jobs, we need to have a conversation,” said Clarke.
“As a result of those discussions, we have the best casino on the East Coast.”
Clarke noted that he hasn’t received any complaints from constituents about the casino.
The press conference also served to highlight SugarHouse’s successes during its first year in operation.
Since it opened, SugarHouse has generated millions of dollars in tax revenue for the city and the state. The revenue includes nearly $53 million in state tax, more than $6 million in local share assessment, approximately $7.7 million for the Economic Development and Tourism Fund and approximately $18 million for the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Fund.
During the anniversary program, Hamilton presented the Penn Treaty Special Services District with a contribution of $500,000. This brings SugarHouse’s total contribution to SSD to more than $1 million.
The SSD is a municipal authority established in 2010 that provides services, security, planning and maintenance to the Penn Treaty area of Philadelphia, which includes the neighborhoods surrounding the casino — Fishtown, South Kensington, Old Richmond and Northern Liberties.
SDD Chairperson Joseph Raftner says SugarHouse’s contributions have enabled the district fund programs for children, seniors and veterans in their neighborhoods.
The casino was recently named one of this year’s “Best Places to Work” in the eighth annual ranking presented by the Philadelphia Business Journal.
Located at 1001 North Delaware Ave., SugarHouse is one of 10 operating casinos in Pennsylvania.
Despite the campaign finance scandal that’s broken over her head, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown seems secure in her leadership position on city council — for the moment.
Earlier this week the city’s Board of Ethics released a settlement agreement with Brown, in which she agreed to pay a record $48,834 fine for financial improprieties — including using campaign funds to repay a personal loan.
The embattled councilwoman — once considered a strong possible candidate for mayor — could be stripped of her leadership post by a vote of council. Published reports have suggested that her council colleagues are discussing the possibility.
But none would say so on the record.
“Not that I know of,” said council President Darrell Clarke, when asked Thursday if there was a movement afoot to remove her as majority whip, a post Clarke once held.
Majority Leader Curtis Jones was among those who declined, on Thursday, to speak on the matter publicly.
Earlier in the week, he told reporters that the Ethics Board report was not grounds to remove Brown.
“I don’t see where her leadership within council, as whip, which is defined as the ability to garner votes, being able to move legislation, is impacted by the findings of the board,” he said Tuesday.
Speaking off the record, another council member said that council might be spurred to action if the report resulted in any more allegations, criminal or civil charges.
Brown admitted that she used campaign funds to pay back a personal loan from Chaka Fattah Jr. — the son of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah — using the money to stave off foreclosure after she fell behind in mortgage payments.
The news prompted almost immediate calls for her to resign from her council seat, and even spawned a website urging Philadelphians to recall her in a special election.
Speaking to reporters after Thursday’s council meeting, Brown said she did not have any indication that her colleagues intended to strip her of her post.
“No,” she replied tersely when pressed by reporters.
Council leaders were aware that she was the subject of an Ethics Board investigation, she said, adding that now everyone on council was aware.
Asked if she was concerned, Brown added, “I feel good that I will be measured on the totality of my work product. I feel good in knowing that consistently, in my 13 years here, I’ve made not good choices but very good choices. I feel good in knowing that I was very honest, I was very forthcoming [with the Ethics Board.]
She referred reporters with more questions back to a statement her office released Tuesday.
“I will do everything in my power to make amends,” she said in a statement released by her chief of staff David Forde.
In a statement, the councilwoman admitted to a number of “errors.”
“It is clear that there were a number of errors that occurred during the last campaign,” she said in the statement.” I take full responsibility for the conduct of my campaign and have taken corrective steps to ensure that future reporting is clear and accurate.”
The headline grabber was the loan from Fattah Jr. — known as Chip — which came in December 2010, just after Brown made a phone call to his congressman father seeking assistance in the effort to save her home. Shortly after the phone call, Fattah Jr. loaned Brown $3,300 — the final chunk of money she needed to stall bank action against her home. The loan was later repaid by the Friends of Blondell Reynolds Brown committee.
In campaign filings, the settlement found, Brown lied about the repayment, listing it as a payment for printing services. Additionally, the report noted that Fattah Jr. was employed by a for-profit school that relied on city council approval for its funding, which came through the school district. At the time, the school had a $4.5 million contract with the district.
“I … must take full responsibility for an error in judgment regarding the repayment of a loan, through campaign funds, for a personal matter,” Brown said in the statement. “I have subsequently made the Friends of Blondell Reynolds Brown whole through reimbursing that amount with my personal funds.”
Fattah Jr.’s phone number was no longer active. The congressman did not respond to requests for comment.
The loan from Fattah Jr. was not the only mistake Brown made.
Documents released by the Ethics Board — 25 pages in all — showed Brown’s campaign finance reports contained more than 170 “errors,” which the board broke down into 165 “material omissions” and six “material misstatements.”
A cursory accounting of the omissions and misstatements showed that Brown collected but failed to properly account for at least $46,600. She also inflated account balances for campaign accounts.
Among the omissions outlined by the settlement was a $4,000 donation from the Friends of Marian Tasco, and in the next reporting cycle a $4,000 debt to the Friends of Marian Tasco. A $2,500 gift from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was also on the list of donations that were not reported. Brown also failed to report a $150 donation from former SRC chairman Robert Archie and $250 from Evelyn Smalls, the president and CEO of United Bank.
The settlement, announced late Monday, also included a number of other incidents where Brown admitted to playing fast and loose with campaign funds. In several instances, she pocketed campaign contributions; in others, her campaign took amounts over the legal limit from a campaign related political action committee.
In one example, Brown took a signed, blank check from entrepreneur Sid Booker, then made it out for a $1,000 and deposited it in her personal bank account. Similar incidents, where Brown took campaign money and put it in her personal account, happened on four different occasions netting her $1,400.
Ethics officials noted that Brown voluntarily disclosed some of the transactions.
The report has already resulted in the firing of one city employee named in the settlement documents. John D. McDaniel was fired Tuesday from his job at the airport, where he was employed as an assistant director with a salary of more than $87,000. In 2010, he was Brown’s campaign manager.
McDaniel had also worked for Mayor Michael Nutter, who, after firing him, issued this statement.
“I have known John McDaniel for a long time, and certainly I’m disappointed by his actions and admissions as outlined in the Ethics Board report,” said the mayor. “The dismissal was “imperative to ensure the integrity of our government and our personnel,” he said.
City and transit officials broke ground on Paseo Verde this week, a $48 million mixed use “green” development in North Philadelphia.
The project, at the corner of 9th and Berks streets, adjacent to the campus of Temple University, is being hailed as a green development because of its proximity to SEPTA’s regional rail station.
The station, which is SEPTA’s fourth largest, serves 8,000 people a day.
“Paseo Verde represents another step toward Philadelphia becoming America’s greenest city. Once again, Philadelphia and its partners are demonstrating that affordable can be sustainable,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, who, along with state Sen. Shirley Kitchen, Council President Darrell Clarke, Joe Casey, general manager of the Southeastern Transportation Authority and a host of others plunged ceremonial shovels in the dirt to officially kick-off the project.
Clarke and Nutter, who once served on Council together, put their past competitiveness behind them for the event.
“I used to sit across from the mayor in City Council, and it could get a little competitive. We always wanted to see who could get more shovels,” joked Clarke. “Now, we share shovels.”
To highlight the eco-friendly nature of the project, the mayor, Clarke and Casey arrived by regional rail.
“We all came by train and we were on time,” Casey quipped, noting that several other dignitaries were late. “They probably drove.”
Clarke too, praised the ease with which officials arrived.
“I don’t do public transportation,” the council president said. “But, it was wonderful.”
Construction is expected wrap up in about 18 months.
The project includes 120 residential units, both market price and affordable housing. Officials said 17 units will be handicapped accessible.
In addition, Paseo Verde boasts 30,000 square feet of commercial and community space.
The fact that SEPTA is just steps away is not the only eco-friendly aspect of the project. The buildings will have blue roofs that store run-off water temporarily, green roofs that are planted with grass and trees, permeable paving, water gardens, solar panels and use recycled and renewable materials.
At the center of the project, the feature which gave the development its name, will be a series of green walkways connecting the development to Temple and a park on the west side of the tracks.
The city provided about $5.5 million to fund the project, with the remainder coming from private investors.
“This is now a place of choice,” Clarke said.
Kitchen commended the developer, Asociacion Puertorriqauenos en Marcha (APM), for its work in North Philadelphia, and for linking the project to transit.
“Nobody wanted to invest,” she said. “But, once urban transit started to take hold, the district came alive.”
Casey said that SEPTA plans to plough $1 million into the nearby Temple station upgrading platforms, adding bike racks and other upgrades.
“APM has been working for over 40 years on building better futures for our community,” said Nilda Ruiz, president of APM. “Paseo Verde is the culmination of that effort. This project will benefit our residents for generations to come.
Wells Fargo is gearing up to launch a program designed to boost Philadelphia’s rate of homeownership.
The nation’s largest home mortgage lender has partnered with nonprofit NeighborWorks America to launch the CityLIFT program, an initiative designed to provide down payment assistance and homebuyer education programs in areas most impacted by the financial crisis.
Vince Liuzzi, Wells Fargo’s regional president for Greater Philadelphia and Delaware says CityLIFT was created to help address the excessive housing inventory crisis facing many cities around the nation.
“At Wells Fargo, we want to do more to help stabilize neighborhoods — and in particular to help ease the housing inventory situation,” Liuzzi said during a press conference held Thursday afternoon in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.
“The demand for rental property for displaced homeowners, combined with a stalled housing market has forced home prices down. Wells Fargo is pleased to announce the launch of a program that will help boost the housing market in the city of Philadelphia, and put people in homes that they can afford.”
The new initiative is modeled after Wells Fargo’s successful NeighborhoodLIFT program — which was the first of its kind in the banking industry. Philadelphia is one of 20 cities that will benefit from a total of $170 million Wells Fargo has committed to support housing in cities affected by the economic downturn. The initiative is accompanied by a five-year lending goal of $2.2 billion for Philadelphia homebuyers.
Through CityLIFT, applicants can apply for up to $15,000 in down payment assistance grants, and tap into homebuyers education programs.
NeighborWorks America nonprofit affiliate New Kensington Community Development Corporation will determine income eligibility and help prospective homebuyers reserve down payment assistance grants and receive homeownership education. Since January, NeighborWorks has worked with Wells Fargo to bring LIFT programs to 10 cities around the country. The LIFT programs have helped create 263 new homeowners to date, with another 244 potential new homeowners in process of closing on a home.
“We are so proud that Wells Fargo has invited NeighborWorks to be a partner with them in CityLIFT, and Wells Fargo knows that a prepared homeowner is a successful homeowner. Successful homeowners build secure neighborhoods and revitalize communities such as this one — and this is our goal,” said Deborah Boatwright, Northeast regional director of NeighborWorks America.
To qualify for up to $15,000 in down payment assistance, applicants’ must be approved for home financing. An applicant’s household income cannot exceed 120 percent of area median income. For example, the annual household income for a family of four cannot exceed $97,800. Participating homebuyers must attend an eight-hour homeownership education class with a HUD-approved counselor and make a commitment to stay in the home for five years. Homebuyers can obtain mortgage financing from any lender.
“Philadelphia has a long proud tradition of homeownership, and that’s one of the things that makes our neighborhoods so vibrant. We know that homeownership is important to stabilizing neighborhoods in Philadelphia,” said Shanta Schachter, deputy director, New Kensington CDC.
Mayor Michael Nutter and Councilman Darrell Clarke were on hand to thank Wells Fargo for bringing the CityLIFT program to Philadelphia.
“This program is a continuation of ongoing efforts by our city to strengthen neighborhoods and provide quality and affordable housing for our residents,” said Nutter.
“This collaboration with Wells Fargo and local nonprofits will offer residents not only new opportunities to own a home, but also the knowledge and resources to be successful in this important investment.”
CityLIFT will officially launch during a free homebuyer workshop on September 21 and 22 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Hall D, 1101 Arch St.
Workshop attendees can apply for up to $15,000 in down payment assistance funding to purchase a home in Philadelphia. During the event, prospective homebuyers visit a viewing center to preview featured homes for sale in Philadelphia neighborhoods. A free bus tour will be offered from noon to 5 p.m. each day to view featured homes available for sale throughout Philadelphia.
Register for the upcoming workshop by visiting www.mycitylift or call 1(866) 802-0456. Preregistration is preferred. Walk-ins will be accepted.
No arrests made in May 2011 killing of Linwood Bowser
Like most of the murders of young Black men in Philadelphia, the slaying of Linwood Bowser III was a senseless, needless act of gun violence that, despite whatever the motive may have been, didn’t have to happen.
Vonda Bowser, mother of the victim, is understandably angry, still grieving and has no sense of closure since her son’s murderer has never been caught. She said police do have a person that they’re looking at but haven’t been able to name him as a suspect because of a lack of evidence. And, just to rub salt into the wounded heart of his mother, witnesses won’t talk, per the required madness of the no-snitching rules and, as if that isn’t enough, city installed surveillance cameras that are located in the vicinity of the murder scene weren’t operational at the time.
But according to Bowser, there’s still another layer to the murder case.
Recently, in the Old City section of Philadelphia, a Temple University graduate, Kevin Klesse, was beaten to death. Three suspects were arrested following the announcement that the city and the Fraternal Order of Police had put up a $20,000 reward. When Vonda Bowser asked the city for similar help, she was told there was no money. A tip led to the arrests of Klesse’s killers. No tipsters have come forward to collect the $2,000 scraped up herself as a reward for the capture of her son’s murderer.
“And that’s another one of my problems,” Bowser said. “They told me there was no money, but when this other guy gets killed they managed to find all kinds of money. To me, there’s a different standard between a murder committed in Old City and murders committed in North or South Philadelphia. I’m a member of Mothers in Charge and that helps, but the pain over this just never goes away. I can say this: I’m on a mission to find out who killed my son. He has his own son who is now 14 months old, who will never know his father.”
On Sunday, May 2, 2010, Linwood Bowser, 20, who was known as “Wood,” was with friends across from his mother’s house on the 1400 block of N. 28th Street in the city’s Brewerytown section. At about 12:45 a.m. gunfire exploded in the 2700 block of West Jefferson Street and “Wood” was fatally struck. Investigators said the motive was an argument. He was pronounced dead at Temple University Hospital. So far, police have not made any arrests.
Since that night, nothing has been the same for Vonda Bowser.
“No one has come forward,” she said. “From talking with the detectives, I’ve learned there were two people involved. There were witnesses, but if that city surveillance camera at 28th and Jefferson was working they wouldn’t need anyone to come forward. Is it hard for me? Yes.”
Edward Nelson, a close family friend said he’s very disappointed in the way the case has been handled.
“Yeah, I think they handle cases differently and yes, I think if the surveillance camera was working the police would at least be able to identify who shot ‘Wood.’ To me, the security camera gives the community a false sense that it’s working, and I still don’t think it is,” Nelson said. “First we had to deal with the trauma of my friend being shot and then to find out the camera wasn’t even working was insult to the injury. We went to our city councilman, Darrell Clarke for help. We never heard back from him. I have to say that I’ve lost some respect for Councilman Clarke behind this.”
“I went to his office and sat there for almost an hour but he never came out to see me,” Bowser said. “He never even called to offer his condolences.”
The Tribune called City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office to ask him to comment to Bowser’s assertion but he was unable to respond by the filing of this story.
“Mothers in Charge is an organization that no one wants to belong to,” said organization founder Dorothy Johnson-Speight. “I know Vonda went to several city officials and community leaders for help in putting together reward money, but no one stepped up. When you’ve lost a child to this senseless violence and you get very little community support it adds to the tragedy. It’s a pain that never goes away. For me, it’s been ten years since my son Khaaliq was murdered and I still feel it.”
The Citizens Crime Commission is offering Vonda Bowser’s $2,000 reward to bring the killer to justice, but so far there haven’t been any takers. But there are a lot of unsolved murders listed on the Philadelphia Crime Commission’s website.
“I really feel sorry for this poor woman,” said John Apeldorn, head of the Crime Commission of the Delaware Valley. “It’s one tragedy of the many listed on our website. To speak to Ms. Bowser’s issue though, the commission is a non-profit organization, we’re a 501C3. We really don’t put up any money for rewards for any of the cases listed on our website; all of it comes from the city and private donations.”
As for the operation of the city’s surveillance cameras, 207 cameras have been installed, but only 151 are working. Tribune reporters called the Deputy Mayor of Public Safety, Everett Gillison, to determine if the city’s surveillance cameras were working and if not, why not. Gillison was in a meeting in preparation for Mayor Michael Nutter’s Thursday press conference regarding new public safety initiatives and was unable to respond to inquiries immediately.
Meanwhile, Vonda Bowser gets to live with the pain that never goes away, hoping that someday, her son’s killer will finally be brought to justice.
“Will that bring my son back? No, nothing can do that,” she said. “Will seeing his murderer tried and convicted make me feel better? Yes, knowing that person is off the streets should make us all feel better.”
In what was either a thinly-veiled threat or a no-nonsense, frank assessment of the school district’s current financial malaise, district Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen got everyone’s attention on Tuesday when he announced that the school district will face the possibility that schoolhouse doors won’t open in September if city council doesn’t approve the controversial Asset Valuation Index (AVI) legislation, which would provide the district $94 million in funds.
Knudsen made the startling announcement during the first public hearing on the School Reform Commission’s Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools. That $94 million in additional AVI revenue has already been included in the blueprint, along with extra state revenues in fiscal years 2016 and 2017.
Given the opportunity, school district officials didn’t back away from Knudsen’s assertion — and reiterated that the district literally has nothing left to cut, and the $94 million is a must-have for the district’s survival.
“In reference to [Knudsen’s remarks], the $218 million shortfall we are projecting for the next fiscal year takes into consideration the city approving $94 million in extra revenue,” said school district spokesman Fernando Gallard. “What makes it dire is if we don’t get the $94 million, then in the fall, the budget deficit becomes $218 million plus $94 million.
“This is a conversation about reality and fact; it’s about finally stating clearly where we are financially and what our needs are,” Gallard continued. “The SRC has mandated to the district that we must be 100 percent clear and straightforward with our finances.
“The SRC has made it clear that in prior years, the district has spent more than it had, and it can no longer continue to operate this way. When Knudsen said it’s dire, we literally do not know where we will get the money to fill that hole.”
Knudsen’s remarks hinted that the district will be unable to carry a deficit of $312 into the next year, which could theoretically cause the district to basically shut down in September. Gallard refused to speculate on what public education would look like in the near-term if council doesn’t come up with the $94 million. While city council members continue to debate the merits of AVI, council president Darrell Clarke recently said he is pleased that the district is at least finally confronting its financial morass, but stressed the need for caution.
“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 structure. With this new $90 million request, there is going to be something in there that reflects our viewpoint. That’s just the bottom line.”
Gallard also said there’s nothing left for the district to cut; that is it down to providing the most crucial programs, and few non-mandated services have survived the last round of cuts.
“For fiscal year 2012, we went through $700 million in cuts. We’ve had to lay off 98 nurses, school police officers, and announced were are not going to have summer school, but only credit recovery programs for seniors, so we’ve been actively cutting where we can.
“What we are saying in regard to AVI is that there is no fat left — we are down to the primary services for education.”
Veteran school nurse and vocal student services advocate Eileen Duffey has seen the hurt these measures have caused, not only on her peers that were laid off, but for the students she serves as well.
“We never said the school district was perfect. It has had funding problems going back 30 years, and now they have organized in such a way as to dismantle it,” Duffey said, who has cared for public school students for more than three decades. “We have a devastating situation on our hands, and the people who are now charged to fix it are not looking at dissecting the social situation, but looking at dollars.
“It’s heart-breaking, union-busting and undemocratic,” Duffey continued. “And everyone will pay for this travesty.”
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he doubts the teacher’s union can mount a legal defense to either the reorganization plan in general, or the particular element that calls for a $159 million reduction in personnel, including a restructured benefit and wage scale. But Jordan defended the union, noting the district’s history of mismanagement, and the prior givebacks by the PFT.
“When it comes to health care costs and pensions, for ten years, the legislature allowed school districts to pay zero into funding their pensions, and then we had the financial crisis in the country, which of course affected the pension funds, too,” Jordan said. “So now, [the state] is saying to districts across the commonwealth that they have to pay more money into the pensions.
“The SRC knew that, and it’s the school district and SRC that has been managing the district, When it comes to health care costs, it’s a major issue.”
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.”
Dr. William Hite, the School District of Philadelphia’s new superintendent, has been on the job since September, but I suspect he got his official “Welcome to Philadelphia” this week.
A meeting held at Dobbins High School a few nights ago for community input into the District’s plan to close 37 schools at the end of the school year was well attended by parents and other stakeholders, who gave the School District representatives a piece of their minds.
A big piece.
It got loud, it got heated, and it got ugly. And guess what? It will get uglier over the coming weeks and months.
Parents are righteously indignant at what they perceive as the District’s ham-handed implementation of the plan to shut the doors of their neighborhood schools. They weren’t given sufficient notification, they complained, weren’t given input or even a token consultation before the plan was finalized, and only now get to comment in a short series of meetings designed not so much to gain insight from the community, but to push the plan through in its entirety.
City Council President Darrell Clarke, who attended the meeting at Dobbins, visited the Tribune’s offices on Wednesday morning, and he wasn’t wild about the plan either. As council representative for the fifth district, ten of the schools slated for closure are in his district, and his constituents would likely bear the brunt of the plan’s implementation.
“This decision was made in a vacuum. There was a bean counter behind it,” Clarke said, noting that great strides were made to improve conditions at Strawberry Mansion High School, one of the school’s in his district on the chopping block, including an infusion of money and resources from the federal government.
The district didn’t even know of the programs and improvements at Strawberry Mansion, Clarke told us, and were similarly unaware of a plan to build nearly 200 houses in the immediate catchment area, which could boost attendance by several hundred if those new homes are occupied by families with school-age children.
Clarke was careful to repeat several times that he doesn’t blame Hite for this fiasco, and suspects most parents don’t blame him either. Hite, in accepting the job, stepped onto a minefield. The woes of the district started long before he got here, and he’s left with the untenable job of trying to clean up a giant mess not of his own making.
But he did take the job, and all the headaches that go along with it. I realize Dr. Hite is a big boy, and can take the slings and arrows coming his way. In fact, I asked him point blank one day if he sometimes buries his head in his hands and asks himself, “What was I thinking?” He laughed and answered, only half-jokingly, “Every day.”
Clarke, as well as other members of City Council, has indicated that there may be public hearings, and certainly more than the already scheduled public meetings, on the matter of school closings before any doors are padlocked.
Most Philadelphians understand that some school closings are going to happen. That’s just the reality. Some of the schools on the list are operating at 25 or 30 percent of their student capacity, so the District is paying out an awful lot of money to heat and provide lights for empty classrooms. Clearly, that is an unsustainable pattern — especially for a district as deep in the financial hole as this one.
Think of the number of kids who will be forced to walk, sometimes long distances through hostile neighborhoods, to get to a school that’s not much better than the one down the street that the District just closed.
Think of the risks of robbery, assault and Lord-knows-what dangers as they walk unfamiliar streets. Now think about what happens if a child is robbed, or worse. Think their parents’ shyster lawyer may want to blame the District for closing the school around the corner, thereby contributing to the tragedy? Think that lawyer may sue for a buck or two?
This week’s meeting at Dobbins may serve as a wake up call to District officials that the entire closure plan has to be given a lot more thought, and a lot more strategic planning — before any sort of roll out to a now distrustful and less-than-receptive public.
I hope Dr. Hite realizes that by now, and plans his next steps very, very carefully. Good advice when you’re standing in a minefield.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.