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.”
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 vice president 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 also 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’ 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, nor 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 has 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.”
The district also released an update to its “Educational Leadership Criteria” 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 understands excellent schools should be determined by more than standardized test scores but a collection of school-based outcomes.”
Graduation is a milestone. And with one week away from embarking on a journey of new experiences, life changes and countless opportunities, several students in the Class of 2012 have more to celebrate.
The Philadelphia Tribune and Wells Fargo Student Achievers Reception recognized 66 high school seniors — who have made academic accomplishments while under challenging circumstances — on June 6 at the Union League of Philadelphia.
The Tribune’s president and CEO, Robert W. Bogle, greeted the students and their families and gave a congratulatory message.
“Today we honor students who have displayed an unwavered commitment to academic excellence,” he said. “Despite a number of challenges and obstacles, our student honorees, have managed in a very meaningful way to achieve something that will be important for many of your tomorrows. And that is the first step towards this journey called success.”
Bogle also recognized Constance E. Clayton for attending the event. She is the first woman and first African-American superintendent of schools in Philadelphia.
Aldustus (A.J.) Jordan, vice president of community affairs manager of Wells Fargo was the master of ceremonies, and Rev. Tamieka N. Moore of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church gave the invocation.
Thomas Knudsen, acting superintendent and chief recovery officer of the School District of Philadelphia and Pedro A. Ramos, Esq., chairman of the School Reform Commission gave remarks.
“Each and every one of you graduates has marshaled his or her resources and accomplished something real and meaningful that will be with you for all the days of your lives,” he said. “And you have done so in the face of personal challenges that would have held others back. That makes you true heroes.”
“Commit to being an aggressively life long learner,” Ramos said. “Everyday for the rest of your life seek out new knowledge and better understanding of different cultures and different ideas.”
The keynote speaker, Kevin R. Johnson, senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church offered words of encouragement to the students. While sharing the story of his life growing up, Johnson used an analogy of chickens and eagles. He challenged the students not to act as their peers and be timid, but be rare individuals who aren’t afraid to achieve success.
“Maybe you have gone through the struggles and challenges in your own life just so you can begin to fly,” Johnson said. “It’s now time for you to launch. And as you get ready to launch, I want you to know, don’t forget this moment when you heard someone tell you to not become a chicken, but to dare to become an eagle.”
Mayor Michael Nutter and Wells Fargo Regional President Vincent Liuzzi, were also in attendance. Liuzzi presented a $25,000 check to the City of Philadelphia Office of Education’s organization PhillyGoes2College, which helps Philadelphians of all ages earn a college degree.
Among the awardees at the reception was high school senior, Christopher Miller of Carver Engineering and Sciences High School. Miller said he was honored to be recognized.
“I’m proud of myself. I had no idea what is was at first, and then my mom told me and a couple kids from school told me,” Miller said. “It means a lot.”
This fall, Miller will attend Morehouse College. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in history, he plans to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania.
Within his four years of school, Miller has lost both his maternal and paternal grandfathers to cancer. Despite this emotional burden, Leah Tate, Miller’s mother said that she is proud of his accomplishments and knew that he had the ability to push through.
“He was never the kid to stand outside,” Tate said. “He always went to school and home. Everybody knew that Chris is the scholar. I’m extremely proud. Christopher is extraordinary in many ways. He’s going to Morehouse College and he did everything on his own.”
She also encourages other parents with children entering high school in the fall.
“Besides starting to make sure that they stay active, but give a little,” Tate said. “Let them go out and experience things. Don’t be scared. I didn’t achieve it for myself, but I wasn’t scared for my son.”
Author, founder of Art Sanctuary hailed as ‘asset’
Philadelphia native Lorene Cary, author and founder of the Art Sanctuary, has been appointed to the School Reform Commission.
Her appointment rounds out a commission left with three vacancies following the recent resignations of Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., and member Johnny Irizarry. A third vacancy remains as Pedro Ramos, appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett earlier this year, awaits approval by the state Senate.
Mayor Michael Nutter announced Cary’s appointment late Monday afternoon in a statement released by his press secretary.
“Lorene Cary is a nationally recognized writer, she has a tremendous education background, but for me what is truly outstanding is that she has an incredible passion for the well-being of children; she cares very personally about parents and she’s very much focused on supporting teachers,” Nutter said. “She will be a tremendous asset to the School Reform Commission and the children of Philadelphia.”
Cary could not be reached for comment, but was quoted in the mayor’s announcement.
“My parents were both Philadelphia public school teachers; I attended elementary school here; our children have spent about half their school life in District schools; and as a writer and arts organization director, I’ve worked with schools and with kids, parents and grandparents who know that a good education is their only real hope for success,” she said. “I am grateful to be called to serve them on this committed and talented team.”
The appointment was praised by the state Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis.
“I believe her experience will be beneficial to the school district and the commission,” he said. “I look forward to working with her and her colleagues in the coming months as we address many of the critical issues facing the district.”
Under rules established in 2001, when the state took over city schools, the mayor appoints two members of the five-member commission and the governor appoints three.
That left just two members — Denise McGregor Armbrister and Joseph A. Dworetzky — after Archie’s and Irizarry’s resignations in early September. Both men stepped down in the wake of a far-reaching scandal surrounding the departure of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and efforts to turn Martin Luther King High School into a charter school.
Nutter filled one slot on Sept. 20, with the appointment of Wendell E. Pritchett, chancellor of Rutgers University-Camden.
Cary is a well-known novelist and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
Her novel, “The Price of a Child,” was the inaugural One Book One Philadelphia selection in 2003. A senior lecturer in creative writing in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, Cary founded Art Sanctuary in 1998 as a means of using African-American art to enrich the city and region, to bring the arts to schools and to build and strengthen a network among artists. She was awarded the Philadelphia Award in 2002.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Cary has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Penn. She also won a Thouron Fellowship and earned an M.A. in Victorian literature from Sussex University in the United Kingdom. She graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. and later taught at the school.
Cary lives in East Falls with her husband, the Rev. Robert C. Smith, rector of the Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd. The couple has two daughters.
And then there was one.
Dr. William R. Hite Jr., is the next superintendent and CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission announced Friday.
Hite was one of two finalists for the job. The other, Pedro Martinez, has been named superintendent of Reno, Nevada-based Washoe County School District, that district’s Board of Trustees announced Friday.
However, even before the Martinez’s announcement, Hite seemed the obvious choice.
He met this week with school and city leaders and was endorsed by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chairman of the education committee, and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
Hite comes to Philadelphia from the Prince George’s County Public Schools system in Maryland, where he oversaw the nation’s eighth-largest school district, one that educates 135,000 students and contains 200 schools.
His resume also includes a stint as assistant superintendent for Atlanta’s Cobb County School District before his PGCS appointment, where he was responsible for 15 schools and 18,000 students.
The Philadelphia school district has over 160,000 students.
In Prince George’s County, Hite was known for his work on Intensive Support and Intervention Schools to support the most needy schools and at-risk students, while forging a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh.
He also led PGCS through a massive reorganization, a skill on which Hite will need to rely heavily as Philadelphia’s superintendent.
Announcing the SRC’s selection, Chairman Pedro A. Ramos said, “Today, we take a giant step toward providing safe, high quality educational opportunities for all Philadelphia children. Dr. Hite is an eminent educator and a proven transformative leader.”
Mayor Michael Nutter stated, “I was very impressed with Dr. Hite’s passion and commitment to educating children, support for the professional development of teachers and principals, and his dedication to working with the broader Philadelphia community. He understands that a high performing, high expectation system of schools is critical to the future of the City of Philadelphia. I would like to thank Wendell Pritchett for leading this effort by chairing the search committee and to all of the members of the community who attended meetings, offered advice and were involved in this thorough process.”
For a decade, Philadelphia’s school superintendents have been lightning rods for criticism.
Hite’s immediate predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, left last year under a barrage of controversy, with criticism from parents, the mayor and City Council for her handling of items ranging from school reform to budget negotiations with the city.
The new superintendent will be faced with a growing budget crisis and ongoing reform efforts.
With a budget deficit that is now poised to jump from $218 million to more than $270 million, the SRC will either have to implement another round of cuts, on top of already deep cuts, or borrow to close its spending gap. Already the district, its students and parents are dealing with several rounds of layoffs and furloughs.
Martinez’ sudden exit from the running came early Friday with a statement from the Washoe County School District.
“We are excited to welcome Pedro Martinez to the Washoe County School District. In addition to strong leadership, Pedro brings a tremendous amount of passion for high-quality education, our 63,000 children, and this community. As we continue to move our school district forward, we know Pedro will continue the important work in our strategic plan and will do that work by talking with everyone in our schools and community,” said Board President Ken Grein in a statement released by the WCSD. “We are thrilled to welcome him, and we know our successes will continue as he assumes this critical role.”
WCSD has 63,000 students and includes schools in Reno, Incline Village, Gerlach and Wadsworth.
Martinez and Hite Jr. survived an extensive vetting process that included more than a dozen other candidates. By the time it was all over on Friday, Hite said he was happy to have been chosen.
“Philadelphia is one of America’s greatest cities, and I am excited about the opportunities that it offers. I look forward to working with the leaders and families of this city as we work to improve the lives of our youth,” said Hite.
While details surrounding the transition are still being determined, Search Team Chair and SRC Commissioner Dr. Wendell Pritchett reiterated the SRC’s commitment to an open and transparent process. “We will make Dr. Hite’s contract public as soon as it is finalized,” said Pritchett.
City, School District and charter school officials have joined forces in an effort to win a share of $40 million, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aimed at boosting school performance.
“Our goal is to enhance educational opportunities for about 50,000 students in the poorest performing schools in our district and charter school systems by creating high quality alternatives,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, at a joint press conference Tuesday at the Stetson Middle School in Kensington. “By 2016, our goal is to not have a single student in a low-performing school while raising the standards and quality of higher performing schools.”
The coalition of city, School District and charter officials has formed the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact — promising to share education strategies and methods at schools across the city. Philadelphia was one of 14 cities — including New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Baltimore — across the nation to form similar pacts, allowing them to compete for the Gates Foundation funds.
Nutter made the announcement with School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos and organizations representing the majority of the city’s charter schools as well as Don Shalvey, with the Gates Foundation.
The foundation has already approved a $100,000 grant to support the creation of the Great Schools Compact.
“I can remember a time when a compact between charter schools and district schools would have been unheard of,” Shalvey said. “But, Philadelphians took a bold move with this compact — to stand together in the interest of the youth at every single Philadelphia school, to change the opportunity equation for your futures.”
The School District is already in the midst of a reform plan intended to boost student performance.
Eighty-eight schools — charter and district schools serving 46,000 students — have been identified as the city’s lowest performing schools. Since 2010, the District has shifted approximately 20,000 students from 22 schools of those schools to new management and/or school models through its “Renaissance Schools” and “Promise Academies” programs.
There are about 210,000 students attending Philadelphia’s public and charter schools.
New reform plans will unite charter and district officials, who promised to set aside past differences and focus on the kids.
“The newly constituted SRC intends to pursue the aims of the compact vigorously,” Ramos said. “We know this requires great effort and steadfastness from all of us who have a stake in our students’ future — which means all of us in Philadelphia.”
Mark Gleason with the Philadelphia School Partnership, a non-profit dedicated to school improvement, also promised his support.
“The signing of the compact represents a great first step for Philadelphia,” said Gleason. “Already, we have seen funders rally in support. We formed PSP knowing that our city has lots of people and institutions who care deeply about improving schools, but unless we are all working and funding in concert we won’t be able to achieve results on a large scale.”
Shalvey too lauded the effort.
“Despite facing a number of challenges this year on the education front, Philadelphia has brought together an impressively broad group of stakeholders to support the vision of the Compact,” he said.
In addition to seeking funding from the Gates Foundation, city and education officials are looking for other outside funding. The Philadelphia School Partnership has begun putting together a “Great Schools Fund” to invest in the creation, expansion and sustainability of high-performing schools. Its goal is to raise $100 million by 2016 from individuals, corporations and foundations; it is currently in discussions with donors for matching commitments that could run as high as $20 million.
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.
Mayor, community groups, head of teachers union welcome new superintendent
According to early reports, the School Reform Commission seems to have gotten it right with the selection of career educator Dr. William R. Hite Jr. as its next School District of Philadelphia Superintendent.
A myriad of stakeholders unanimously hailed the SRC for its choice, giving embattled school officials rare praise.
“Today, we take a giant step toward providing safe, high quality educational opportunities for all Philadelphia children,” said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos last Friday, when the decision had been reached. “Dr. Hite is an eminent educator and a proven transformative leader.”
Hite Jr. comes from the Prince George’s County Public Schools system, Maryland’s second-largest school district with an enrollment of 135,000 and a budget of $1.6 billion.
The SRC has promised to release the details of Hite Jr.’s contract as soon as it is finalized.
Nutter, kept abreast at every stage in the superintendent search, also praised Hite Jr. for his education acumen and dedication to students.
“I was very impressed with Dr. Hite’s passion and commitment to educating children, support for the professional development of teachers and principals, and his dedication to working with the broader Philadelphia community,” Nutter said in a joint statement released by the SRC. “He understands that a high performing, high expectation system of schools is critical to the future of the City of Philadelphia. I would like to thank Wendell Pritchett for leading this effort by chairing the search committee and to all of the members of the community who attended meetings, offered advice and were involved in this thorough process.
High-ranking members of City Council were equally impressed with the new superintendent’s education acumen and his straightforward, yet affable nature. While Hite Jr. seems at ease in Philadelphia, even with taking on such a monumental challenge, veteran members of Council expect Hite to deliver on the hype.
“I am very pleased. He was my choice — and not that the other guy couldn’t do the job — but [Hite Jr.] was my pick from the beginning,” said Education Committee Chair Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, noting that Hite Jr. was very forthcoming about the problems identified in the district, including combating low morale and dealing with special education issues. “But I am interested in what he plans to do about crime and truancy, and how he wants to handle alternative education for the kids who don’t make it out of regular classes.
“We look forward to the opportunity to directly engage him.”
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, co-chair of Council’s education committee, echoed Blackwell’s sentiments.
“I believe the background of Dr. Hite is important, as he has served as an educator, principal and superintendent. He faced numerous and similar challenges as the Superintendent in Prince George’s County School District that we face here in Philadelphia,” Reynolds Brown said. “That history will be vital and inform how he tackles the numerous budget and academic issues that confront the Philadelphia School District. He also seems well aware that the district cannot face the problems that it faces on an island — that it takes a community effort of all stakeholders. I appreciate that approach. I look forward to working with him as we move the needle forward for our students.”
To form that relationship with students and teachers, Hite Jr. must first form a relationship with the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union. Previous superintendents had, at best, lukewarm relationships with the union, but PFT President Jerry Jordan seems willing to start anew with Hite.
“On behalf of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the city’s educators and staff, I congratulate and welcome Dr. William R. Hite as he assumes the role of Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. In a time of great upheaval for our schools, we are hopeful that Dr. Hite’s appointment signals the beginning of stability and clarity that has been lacking for many months,” Jordan said in a statement released by the PFT. “Dr. Hite’s background as an educator and administrator in urban school districts should serve him well as he navigates the unique challenges facing Philadelphia’s Public Schools. The PFT looks forward to collaborating with the new superintendent to ensure our students and teachers are given the support, tools and conditions that foster high quality teaching and learning.”
Leaders with the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity — long a watchdog organization in the superintendent search — have yet to meet with Hite, but its leadership is looking forward to working with the new schools chief.
“I have not had the opportunity to hear or meet with Dr. Hite, however, some Black clergy, our general secretary and others, have met with him and conveyed that Dr. Hite was very charismatic, and his presentation was very good,” said Black Clergy President Rev. Terrence Griffith, referring to the recent community forum Hite Jr. attended. “It seems that he has done a tremendous job in Prince George’s County in terms of resuscitating that school district.
“I don’t know if being charismatic qualifies somebody, but it goes a long way in reaching a lot of people,” Griffith continued, “but if those people who attended the forum are correct, then the SRC has chosen wisely.”
City Council’s unease with the Actual Value Initiative — the shift from property taxes based on partial values to one based on full market values — was apparent this week during budget hearings.
A number of members are concerned that the shift, which was supposed to be revenue neutral, is actually a tax increase.
“You need to address the outstanding questions as relates to the math of this on the issue of whether or not we are asking the public for a tax increase,” said Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. on Wednesday morning as he summed up concerns about AVI.
Jones was just one member of Council who peppered Finance Director Rob Dubow and Budget Director Rebecca Rhynhart with questions and comments over several days this week as Council dug into Mayor Michael Nutter’s $3.6 billion budget proposal.
The administration’s budget numbers show that the move to AVI would provide an additional $90 million in funding for the school district this year, for a total of $673 million. The city, which splits property tax revenue with the district, would collect $458 million, roughly the same amount it collected last year.
Administration officials have avoided calling that extra revenue a tax increase, and instead say it represents the amount captured by increasing property values, which have risen since the city froze assessments in 2010.
But council members, who now appear to be fielding more questions from angry constituents, are nervous.
“This AVI issue is probably going to be the most difficult and angry issue that we’re facing — maybe since I came into council in ’92,” said Councilman Jim Kenney. “I can’t yet find a justification for explaining to people that I represent, citywide, why the additional $90 million makes sense.”
Kenney, like many of his colleagues, voted for property tax increases in several recent budget cycles, and said this week he supports funding for public schools. But, noting that in testimony Monday School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos said previous school administrations were guilty of “bad fiscal policy,” Kenney added that he wanted a better idea of how the district would spend the additional money.
His questions and comments suggested that council might feel more comfortable if revenue figures were changed to eliminate the added $90 million for the district.
“Would you agree with me, subjectively, that with the $90 million off the table it would be difficult for people to argue that this is fact a tax increase?” he asked Dubow, who declined to “get into whether it’s a tax increase.”
Dubow then added that he was sure the district was aware that it would need to justify the added money.
Last year council approved a 3.9 percent property tax increase after school officials, led by former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, said if it didn’t the district would be forced to get rid of full-day kindergarten and yellow buses.
“We were spun,” said Jones, agreeing with Kenney that he would need to know where any additional money was being spent.
Council members are also concerned about how the administration plans to roll out AVI.
The mayor wants to see it done this year. Under the administration’s plan, residents will receive their new assessments in October, and bills based on the new numbers in December.
That concerns council members who are being asked to make decisions based on budget numbers that could change as residents challenge tax bills through city appeals and maybe even court challenges.
“If we for some reason go forward and find out what we’re doing here, the formulation, the method is not legal … and all those appeals are granted we’d collect less revenue, correct?” asked Councilman Mark Squilla.
Dubow said the city had factored greater appeals, losses and lower collections when drawing up the budget.
“We’re assuming that goes up substantially,” he said.
At last week’s city council meeting, Squilla emerged as one of the prime opponents of AVI after he introduced legislation that would freeze property tax millage rates and assessments at current levels.
Squilla also raised concerns about a portion of the city’s AVI plan that would create a $15,000 exemption for residents’ primary residence. That portion of the plan needs approval by the state legislature before it can be enacted.
“We’re still at a point where we cannot give the public real information because we don’t know everything that is going to happen,” said Squilla.