As the School Reform Commission searches for a new superintendent, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity ramped up its pressure to include more clergy in the selection process during a press conference on Tuesday in front of School District of Philadelphia headquarters on North Broad Street.
Black Clergy president Terrance Griffith and Bright Hope Baptist Church’s Reverend Kevin R. Johnson joined local NAACP president Jerry Mondesire and a slew of local clergy in demanding the school district do all it can to put children first.
“The School District of Philadelphia is undergoing radical education reform with little or no input from taxpayers, parents, students, teachers and voters,” Johnson said, noting that he has two children in the public school system, and they will soon be joined by a third. “Interim appointees, who represent the mayor, governor and business interests, are moving forward with a plan to radically decentralize the district, with no publicly stated and clearly articulated vision on decentralization and how this radical education reform will benefit all children in the school district.”
Johnson and others point to the district’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen’s prediction that the district will face a $145 million budget gap for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2012 — and that some have suggested deficits twice as deep. Johnson also referred to City Controller Alan Butkovitiz’s scathing report that outlined the now well-known budget gap of $61 million that the district must close by July of this year.
Johnson blasted the district for basically throwing good money after bad, by hiring contractors and paying them exorbitant fees, while squeezing the services and programs it offers its students.
“In order to address this fiscal crisis, the SRC’s answer has been to hire outside debt-reduction consultants with lucrative short-term multi-million dollar contracts, eliminate Promise Academies, cut summer school, lay off school safety officers and move forward with a plan to decentralize the district,” Johnson said, referring to the $6 million contract the district awarded The Boston Group. “There seems to be a radical education reform agenda being imposed — with no superintendent or captain to steer the ship.”
Mondesire minced no words in placing blame for the crisis facing Philadelphia public education.
“The problem begins right down the street at City Hall — it starts with the mayor, and ends up right here with the SRC, and the governor who cut the funding in education,” Mondesire said, pledging that the NAACP will back the Black Clergy’s moves. “These are the real culprits in this skullduggery. [The SRC] wants to decentralize the system because they eventually want to get to a privatized system, and that would destroy public education.”
While short on providing actual solutions to the multi-pronged issues facing the school district, Griffith made it clear that he was not pleased with the series of meetings the SRC held throughout the city, or with the selection team itself.
“We’re looking for fair education for our kids. Education is not a Center City right, but a right for all children in Philadelphia,” Griffith said. “We are looking for a good superintendent, and we want to be a part of the process. We do not believe the members of the SRC and a few other people should determine who the superintendent is, with some orchestrated community discussions.”
Indeed, the SRC has recently completed the last of 21 meetings throughout the city, during which it gathered information from attending stakeholders on what qualities they are looking for in a new leader. These meetings ran concurrently with discussions on the closure of nine public schools throughout the city. And through some painful cuts — including the reduction of security staff and closing school buildings on weekends — have allowed the district to nearly cut in half its budget gap for this year.
And last week, the SRC released a statement that it had — on Mayor Nutter’s recommendation — added Reverend Albert Campbell, pastor of Mt. Caramel Baptist Church, to its SRC search team committee, a unit that already included mayoral appointments Lori Shorr and Sylvia Simms. Pedro Ramos serves as SRC chairman, and committee members include Len Riser, Patricia DeCarlo, Robert Wonderling, Fred Ginyard, Ed Williams and Ken Kring.
When asked about Reverend Campbell’s appointment to the SRC, Griffith would only say that he “loved Pastor Campbell.”
Campbell, who will celebrate his 46th year as spiritual leader of Mt. Caramel, says his appointment “may have the potential to strain a few relationships,” but Campbell — himself a member of the Black clergy association who once served as secretary for the organization — also believes the integrity and devotion of the members will overcome any disagreement over his appointment.
“I think, for the most part, the brotherhood and the solid foundation that exists among the brothers and sisters who are pastors and part of the pastoral arena will remain intact,” said the 79-year-old Campbell. “So I am reasonably comfortable with our ongoing relationship as it relates to the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and as it relates to the Baptist Pastors and Ministers Conference.
“We’re not strangers, but I am amongst the elders — and there is awareness of my reprioritization of my life.”
Campbell said his relationship with Nutter goes back more than 30 years, when Nutter was a member of the church’s choir. That relationship continued through Nutter’s appointment as City Council president, and then through Nutter’s two successful mayoral campaigns.
“When he decided to run for mayor, we conferred; he consulted me, and I gladly gave him my judgment about the wisdom of his running,” Campbell said. “He was running against the odds; there were two or three other prominent Black politicians who threw their hats in the ring.
“I encouraged him to run,” Campbell continued, “and I have stood by my commitment to support him, be his spiritual consultant as well as one of his up-close and personal critics.”
Meanwhile, the school district also released an update to its “Educational Leadership Criteria” which it will use to select a new superintendent. The new superintendent should “be sensitive to issues of equity within the school system; manage the business aspects of the district with unwavering focus on what is best for the educational enterprise; understand and respect the diversity of the City of Philadelphia; engage, listen to and be responsive to students, families and other stakeholders; be committed to transparency and openness in the management of the school district and understand that excellent schools should be determined by more than standardized test scores, but a collection of school-based outcomes.”
Ed Williams, Lori Schorr say they are partners with Phila. district – not overseers
Lori Shorr and Ed Williams, the new city and state executive adviser appointees for the Philadelphia School District, don’t want their new roles misinterpreted as the district embarks on yet another search for a superintendent.
In their own words, they are not operatives of the city or the state, setting up offices at 400 N. Broad St. to provide oversight to a district that many, following a summer of turbulence, view as out of control.
“No, my role is anything but that,” said Williams, chuckling, recently following last week’s meeting of the School Reform Commission. “Our roles will crystallize in the coming weeks. But the one thing that is completely understood is that this is partnership and the goal is simple: make sure everything we do is geared toward making the next superintendent’s transition work for the children, teachers and parents of the district. That’s all.”
“I have an excellent working relationship with [Interim Superintendent] Lee Nunery,” Shorr said. “I have been working closely with the district for the last three-and-a-half years. The mayor is very concerned about the state of education in the city. This will be an extension and a convenience in that we can be in more constant communication about what happens in the district in real time. But we’ll be following Leroy’s lead. It’s going to be exciting to just be here for the acting superintendent.”
Both Shorr and Williams are lifelong educators.
Before she became the chief education officer in the mayor’s office at the start of 2008 — where her primary focus is to reduce the high school dropout rate and increase college degree attainment — Shorr spent the previous two years as the vice president of Policy and Planning with the Philadelphia Youth Network, a nationally recognized non-profit that manages millions of dollars in investments from government and industry.
Before this, she was a special assistant to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, reviewing and analyzing initiatives and priorities to ensure that they met established standards.
Before Tomalis appointed him, the semi-retired Williams had previously served as the chief academic officer for the district. He has also served as the deputy associate deputy associate superintendent for the office of schools, where he oversaw the transformation of the district’s then 264 schools into the neighborhood cluster model.
Williams has also served as both a teacher and a principal at the elementary and secondary levels.
Both will be integral in providing information and input room the city and state as the district embarks on yet another national search for the next superintendent, a search of which Mayor Michael Nutter has not provided a timeline.
Nutter said the process would be ramped up once the SRC is fully constituted.
The SRC on Monday moved one step closer to completion when Nutter named arts advocate and novelist Lorene Cary to the SRC. Cary should be swiftly approved, and then the last piece of the SRC should be finalized around Thanksgiving if gubernatorial nominee Pedro Ramos is confirmed by the state Senate.
Nunery has voiced his approval of Shorr and Williams lending a hand and helping the struggling district.
“This is not only my ringing endorsement,” Nunery said, “but I’m excited about having people on my wings talking all the time about how to get things done and working with the great team of people that have. We’ve got some folks here who are incredibly dedicated to their craft. What we need to do now is charge forward.”
Both Williams and Shorr believe that Nunery – as the interim now and, ultimately, if he becomes the superintendent – must be the person to make all the final decisions on everything.
“This is his plan; we’re just here to advise him and support him in the things he wants to do,” Williams said. “So if he gets the job, great. He will have been involved in all of the things we have talked about. It should be an opportunity for Leroy to move the system where he wants to move it, and then I’m going to support him in any way. That’s how I see the role of the advisers.”
If School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos has his way, students enrolled in the Philadelphia School District and their parents should know who the new superintendent is before schools open in September.
That’s provided the newly assembled Superintendent Search Team can finish its work in the next eight months.
“There is no greater responsibility for the SRC than selecting the right superintendent,” Ramos said through a statement released by the SRC. “We believe we can complete the search before September, and we will continue until we have the right leader for our district and our system of schools. We will not settle.”
Lorene Cary, Joseph Dworetzky, Feather Houstoun, and Wendell Pritchett will join Ramos as members of the search team, with Pritchett serving as search team leader. Its executive advisors are Lori Shorr and Edward Williams; Fred Ginyard, Kenneth Kring and Robert Wonderling, the president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, will round out the team. And that team certainly has its work cut out for it, given the high-profile dismissal last August of controversial former superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
After her dismissal, Ackerman humiliated and infuriated school and city officials by filing for unemployment – after she was paid $905,000 in her severance package. The SRC, in its settlement with Ackerman, stated it would not resist her attempt to claim unemployment.
All parties involved in the search for a new school district leader promise a diligent, well-executed search that will focus on certain core criteria.
“Effective community dialogue and input will be critical in the selection of our next superintendent,” said Pritchett. “It is important that the search team is transparent and inclusive in its efforts to select the best candidate to sustain and accelerate the positive academic gains of our children we have experienced.
“The search team must, at the same time, be respectful of the privacy interests of persons who are not prepared to be a candidate, or are not under consideration as finalists for the position.”
Count Mayor Michael Nutter as one of those impressed with the SRC’s move to create the search team.
“I commend the SRC on striking a balance between the need for true public engagement and the importance of moving quickly…this community engagement process will help the SRC to learn from parents, students, and stakeholders about what is needed at the school level as they take on the vitally important task,” Nutter said. “The community engagement process will provide invaluable input to be used throughout the selection process and beyond.”
Philadelphia, along with seven other cities, will receive a financial boost to the expanding relationship between the School District of Philadelphia and the charter/private school network, thanks to a multi-million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Philadelphia will receive $2,499,210, or roughly ten percent of the grant’s full worth of $25 million, and that money will also be used to help better prepare teachers and better educate their students.
City of Philadelphia Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr joined foundation officials on the press call to announce the grant, and said Philadelphia’s portion of the grant will go toward easing public-charter school tensions and increasing the skill set of teachers across sectors.
“Historically, Philadelphia has had a large private school sector, and when we looked across our portfolio, we knew we had to create a higher ground and a common ground for folks to come together and put adult foolishness aside,” Shorr said, noting that Mayor Michael Nutter, in his post as U.S. Conference of Mayors president, has urged other mayors to adopt aggressive pro-education policies. “The [education] compact in Philadelphia includes the district, charters, archdiocese schools and private schools, and we are focusing our $2.5 million grant around improving human capital inside these sectors.
“We are going to work to create an urban leadership academy, where 40 to 50 aspiring principals can attain their certification,” Shorr continued. “To move the needle in Philadelphia, there needs to be a robust set of choices when it comes to hiring principals, and this should get us 40 to 50 candidates when fully implemented.”
According to the foundation, District-Charter Collaboration Compacts were designed to address issues that have often led to tensions between public charter and traditional schools, such as access to equitable funding and facilities, and whether charter schools are open to all students, including those with special needs and English language learners. Through a mix of accountability, collaboration and pledging to share resources and best practices, compact cities are working through many of these issues.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has endorsed the grants and the work of the compacts in resolving long-standing issues between traditional public school districts and the burgeoning charter school system.
“When schools and leaders in communities work together, learn from each other, share resources, best practices and sometimes even facilities, collectively we have a better chance at improving the educational opportunities for all children,” said National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President and CEO Nina Rees via a statement released by her office. “We applaud these cities for helping to lead the way and look forward to continuing to learn from their efforts and collaboration to benefit more students throughout the country.”
New Orleans, Hartford, Boston, Denver, New York City and Spring Branch, Texas, were the other cities awarded a grant. These cities were among the 16 that participated in the first round of the initiative; of those 16 cities, eight of the top-performing cities were selected for further participation.
Each Compact city was awarded $100,000 when the Compacts were signed. The competitive grant program for Compact cities was announced in December 2011 and all 16 Compact cities were eligible and competed for the funds.
“The goal is to support these communities in significantly boosting the number of students enrolled in high-performing schools. These cities understand that opening the lines of communication and sharing best practices across schools are an effective way to do that,” said Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Director of Education, College Ready Vicki Phillips. “They have moved beyond the question of whether charters or district schools are better and are working together to benefit all students in these communities. These cities serve as models for what collaboration can do, and we applaud these local leaders for their commitment to advancing college readiness.”
Phillips created the work of William Penn Foundation, School District Partnership and other organizations for helping the city get the grant.
“Many of the compact cities have made great progress, and Philadelphia has bold and courageous proposals,” Phillips said. “If we don’t have commitment from both sectors — traditional schools and charter schools — we won’t be able to solve the really thorny issues. In the end, that’s what we care about.”
Philadelphia contractor Benjamin Jones, a participant in the School District of Philadelphia’s initiative to utilize small, minority-owned businesses, said his company has received decreasing amounts of work from the district despite his paying thousands of dollars annually to maintain the bonds and insurances the district requires for companies seeking contracts.
“We don’t get peanuts. We don’t even get the smell from the peanut bag,” Jones said about the few Black firms still participating in the School District’s small business program.
The School District of Philadelphia spends millions of dollars every year on constructing or fixing schools, purchasing supplies and paying for professional services like hiring lawyers.
The School District awarded $83.4-million in contracts to companies and individuals from just the middle of last year to early 2013, according to district supplied data. This data noted that multi-million figure did not include additional spending related to “City, State or Federal contracts; Proprietary Licenses or Educational Partnerships.”
But many across Philadelphia believe the School District’s multi-million dollar spending is producing too little bang for those bucks — especially in this city with high levels of poverty and unemployment. Philadelphia holds the unenviable distinction of having the highest poverty rate among the nation’s ten largest cities.
Particularly egregious to many is the fact that those mega-tax dollars spent annually by the School District produce little benefit for local Black-owned businesses, city residents needing employment opportunities and School District students needing work experiences or that start in life after graduation.
“Black contractors are really catching hell at the School District,” Jones said. “Blacks get a fair share of nothing from those millions spent in tax dollars. The School District and the SRC [School Reform Commission] are not working to lower unemployment and poverty with those resources.”
The 23 schools that the SRC voted to close in early March are located predominately in low-income, non-white communities where unemployment rates easily exceed Philadelphia’s citywide average of 11.4 percent. Unemployment in some city sections ranges upwards to an alarming 37.2 percent, according to federal statistics compiled by Philadelphia Works Incorporated.
Since 2006 the School District spent $44.3-million on capital improvements on those 23 schools now approved for closure at the end of this school year in June, according to financial figures the district provided The Philadelphia Tribune.
Little of that $44.3-millon expended on capital improvements either helped reduce unemployment in city neighborhoods or increased economic opportunities for local Black businesses.
One of those schools to be closed by the SRC is the Leslie P. Hill Elementary School located in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion section, where unemployment rates are high. Federal census data states unemployment in the several blocks surrounding the L.P. Hill School is 18.6 percent for males and 33.8 percent for females.
Tyrone Williams, community liaison for the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation, said unemployment is a “major issue” in that community.
“When residents constantly watch contractor come in to this community with New Jersey tags on their trucks, coming into the place where residents live but can’t get a job, that makes them bitter,” Williams said.
Williams said residents in his community received no employment from the multi-million-dollar renovation the School District made a few years ago to Strawberry Mansion High School, which is attached to the Hill School.
“What does that say to residents?” Williams said.
In 2006 the School District and the SRC entered into a specialized agreement giving local building trade unions exclusive employment on District construction projects totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. While this agreement mandated the hiring of “local residents” and district graduates, the district failed to enforce or even monitor its mandate, knowledgeable sources stated.
On that March night when the SRC voted to close those 23 schools, that state controlled body approved a number of contracts for companies - despite justifying school closures on the desperate need to reduce district expenses.
Those contracts included $8.5-million to a firm headquartered outside Philadelphia providing janitorial/custodial services that received a $35.8-million contract in 2010, $1.8-million to retain an international law firm to represent the SRC and $250,000 for two non-Philadelphia firms providing mechanical services work.
One female owned company received a $100,000 contract for replacing window shades in schools. That firm is located in New Jersey, ten miles north of Newark.
“Our children are not accustomed to seeing Black men and women working in the schools. It’s a disgrace. We pay taxes too,” Philadelphia grassroots activist Sacaree Rhodes said. (Rhodes is the wife of contractor Benjamin Jones.)
Activists like Rhodes and Tyrone Williams in Strawberry Mansion said School District engagement with Black owned businesses and employment of Black workers provides important role modeling for students enabling students to envision future paths.
Black students account for 54.5 percent of the School District of Philadelphia’s population, with Hispanics comprising another 18.56 percent. Although white students comprise 14.3 percent of district students, white owned businesses get the lion’s share of district contracts.
Critics of the School District’s spending practices question why educators ignore connections between the lack of employment and the spawn of social ills like crime and poverty. One third of Philadelphia’s annual budget goes to crime related expenditures like police, prisons and courts while another big budget chunk is allocated to address other poverty-related issues.
“Education, economics and violence are all tied together. If a person has no job they can’t raise a family right and their children are running out of control,” Father’s Day Rally Committee President Bilal Qayyum said. The FDRC is an anti-violence/problem-solving organization founded in 1989 that is headquartered less than two miles from the L.P.Hill School in Strawberry Mansion.
The School District will spend millions of dollars, nearly $20-million by some estimates, closing those 23 schools and preparing other schools for the transferring students.
Contractor Benjamin Jones, who specializes in painting, said small businesses like his would participate in the post-closure transition like moving equipment, cleaning out buildings and renovating receiving schools. But a School District spokesman said last week that the district hopes to do most of the transition work “in house.”
The School District of Philadelphia anticipates generating income by selling the 23 school buildings it will close.
A Philadelphia City Controller report issued in February warned that the district “overstates” revenues anticipated from the sale of closed schools.
A cloud hovers over the district’s anticipated sale of the now shuttered old West Philadelphia High School building because the firm the district said it is negotiating with for that sale is not registered with the State of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Corporations.
That Controller’s report listed another name for the firm negotiating to purchase the old West Philly High building, for a reported $6-million. But state Bureau of Corporations personnel stated “we have no records matching the business in question.”
“Any entity doing business in the Commonwealth must be registered with the state. How is the SRC negotiating with an entity that is invisible to the state?” stated a source knowledgeable of government contracting compliance.
“If this stuff happens on the front end, what happens when that firm starts doing work to convert that building to apartments or condos? It’s unlikely [that] Black owned firms will secure meaningful involvement on that project.”
Philadelphia School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district does “have a policy to utilize minority and female owned businesses.”
Data provided by Gallard, for example, stated that minority and female owned businesses received 28 percent of the $83.4 million in contracts allocated over the past eight months. Minority/female contracting ranged from a high of 41 percent in the design and construction category to a low of six percent in the purchasing supplies category.
However, Gallard was not able to provide specific data detailing how many of those contracts went to minority owned companies vs. female owned companies, how many local Black owned companies received contracts and how many of those minority/female contracts went to non-Philadelphia based firms.
Philadelphia businessman Bruce Crawley, an economic equity activist, said Philadelphia residents should have access to contracts and economic activities, but a persistent problem is that too many people who live in the city are excluded from economic inclusion.
“Elected officials, business leaders and the mainstream media are not speaking out on issues of exclusion at the School District,” Philadelphia African American Chamber of Commerce founder Crawley said.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who supported those recent school closures, has said little publicly about the need for the School District to increase contracting and employment opportunities for beleaguered Philadelphia residents, although Nutter recently castigated Philadelphia Magazine for a racially inflammatory cover story.
Activist Sacaree Rhodes said Nutter’s posture on School District spending practices shows his “disdain and disregard…His silence makes this issue worse” for taxpayers who send their children to public schools but can’t get “business and employment” through School District spending.
Nutter’s spokesman referred requests for comment about the mayor’s position on School District spending practices to Dr. Lori Shorr, Nutter’s chief education officer. Shorr’s office referred those requests to the City of Philadelphia’s Executive Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Angela Dowd-Burton.
Dowd-Burton said she was “not aware of any initiatives in collaboration with the School District” to specifically direct district spending to increase contracting opportunities for local Black-owned businesses and employment for local residents including School District graduates.
John Macklin, Philadelphia chapter president of the National Association of Minority Contractors, said the School District could do a lot more with increasing economic development in neighborhoods through its spending practices.
“The School District is using our tax money against us.”