If School Reform Commission officials were caught a little flat-footed during a recent community meeting at Enon Baptist Church in which more than 2,500 people attended, then they should be prepared for a Tuesday May 22 meeting at 6:30 at Bright Hope Baptist Church, 12th St. and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
SRC officials can expect the same sort of probing questions they received from attendees during the Enon meeting; only this time several other organizations are taking part, including Occupy Philly, ACTION United and the Service Employees International Union, which represents the majority of school district employees not covered by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The Bright Hope meeting represents the next in a series of community-orchestrated meetings, in which neighborhood leaders gather with other concerned stakeholders to discuss the School District of Philadelphia’s plan. Although not an officially sanctioned meeting of the SRC, district officials are often invited — and often do attend.
The meeting is bound to revolve around District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen’s drastic reorganization blueprint, which calls for the closure of 64 schools, the privatization of crucial scholastic and academic services and a complete restructuring of the programs and offices at district headquarters downtown, among other measures meant to bring the district to a state of solvency.
“We are facing an education emergency in Philadelphia. Outside consultants are proposing to destroy the Philadelphia Public School System and cut thousands of living-wage jobs,” said activist Rita Addessa in an email to supporters, which cited other blueprint moves such as turning many of the remaining public schools into private charters. “The proposal does not talk about things that are known to work in improving education: lowering class sizes, [having] a highly qualified, experienced teacher in every classroom, and clean and safe schools.”
Also up for discussion will be District Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon’s own plan for academic restructuring, which will alter not only the way principals run and manage their schools, but the way teachers deliver instruction as well.
“Officials have laid out their plan, and folks are unhappy, but we really haven’t heard a lot about an alternate vision,” said Roland Ferguson, of the Southwest Chapter of ACTION United. “That’s what we are going to do on Tuesday. People not only want to hear about the proposed changes, they want to make sure the needs of their children and their neighborhoods are being considered in the process. We’re going to lay out an alternative to the plan that includes the priorities of the community, parents and students.”
Bright Hope Baptist Church pastor D. Kevin R. Johnson will lead the meeting, during which members of the community will present photos, drawings and essays from area public school students depicting what they believe a good school should look like and include.
School funding is bound to be a hotly-contested issue, especially given Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s recent remarks, where he essentially blamed school districts throughout the commonwealth for fiscal mismanagement; Corbett also claimed that many school districts are sitting on reserves that they could tap into in order to save crucial programs.
School district officials have denied the district has any surplus or reserves, and confirmed that it is still experiencing a budgetary shortfall for the current year — and is still predicting a major gap for the next academic year.
“We reject the notion that there is no money for schools when they are building new prisons,” Ferguson said. “We need our officials to be listening to the community and looking for creative solutions, rather than trying to solve the funding crisis on the backs of students, or by outsourcing jobs.
“The people that work in the schools are parents and neighbors too.”
The latest findings from the Pennsylvania Department of Education cast yet another unfavorable light on Philadelphia public schools, this time portraying the collective as some of the most violent in the state.
Make that the most violent in the state, according to rankings on the Department of Education’s “Persistently Dangerous Schools List.”
According to the PDE, a school that enrolls 250 students or less and has five or more dangerous incidents is listed as persistently dangerous. A school enrolling between 251 and 1,000 students must have a number of dangerous incidents exceeding 2 percent of its enrollment to make the list.
If a school that enrolls more than 1,001 students and has 20 or more dangerous incidents, it will make the list.
This latest data, made available through the Unsafe School Choice Option, is designed to supply parents and stakeholders with the resources and knowledge to easily transfer their child out of a dangerous school.
All 12 of the schools on the 2011-2012 list are in the School District of Philadelphia.
“The State Board of Education adopted standards in May 2003 that will allow a student who is a victim of a violent criminal offense to transfer to a safe public school and allow a student who attends a persistently dangerous school to transfer to a safe public school,” read an explanatory statement from the PDE. “Together, these two requirements are known as the Unsafe School Choice Option (USCO). These requirements are part of the Federal No Child Left Behind regulations.
“The standards require local education agencies to provide a student who is the victim of a violent criminal offense the option to transfer to another school that is a safe public school. The standards also establish definitions of ‘victim’ and ‘violent criminal offense’ for the local education agency to use in applying the transfer option.”
According to the data, several Philadelphia schools are repeaters. Abraham Lincoln High School has remained on the list since the creation of the PDSL in 2006. Joining Abraham Lincoln on the 2011-2012 PDSL are Thomas A. Edison High School, Samuel Fels High School, Frankford High School, Kensington International Business, Finance and Entrepreneurial High School, Northeast High School, William L. Sayre High School, Anna H. Shaw Middle School, South Philadelphia High School, Strawberry Mansion High School, Universal Audenreid Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School and Mastery Charter School-Simon Gratz Campus.
Edison, Fels, Frankford High, Lincoln High, Sayre, Shaw Middle School, South Philadelphia High, Strawberry Mansion High and Vare Middle School were also on the 2010-2011 list as well.
Interestingly, only one of the schools that made the list – Fitzsimmons High School, which has appeared on this list four times – is the only one slated to be closed via the school district’s Facilities Master Plan.
Officials with the Philadelphia School District haven’t returned calls for comment by Tribune deadline, but the district has taken steps to curb violence in its schools. The five-year reorganization blueprint submitted by District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen shows that violence in Philadelphia public schools decreased by 36 percent from 2007-08 through 2010-11, while there have been 2.6 violent incidents per 100 students in the 2010-11 academic year. Knudsen’s plan calls for more autonomy for principals so they can better secure their schools, implement positive behavioral interventions and identify at-risk students.
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.”
Officials try to rein in costs
If there’s one thing the School District of Philadelphia and the city’s controller’s office can agree on, it’s that district finances are in a state of disarray.
Where the two entities differ is on the exact state of affairs, and what the district is doing to right its fiscal ship.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz recently issued an Independent Auditor’s Report on the school district’s finances for the end of the 2011 fiscal year, which concluded on June 30, 2011. While the findings won’t exactly shock many, the blunt language used to describe the finances leave little doubt about the controller’s feelings in regard to the district’s money management and proposed austerity measures.
“The school district has experienced continued operating fund losses, is projecting significant budget shortfalls for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, and is uncertain about its ability to achieve cost savings and obtain additional funding to cover those shortfalls,” read part of the statement released by the controller’s office and meant to accompany the release of the full audit. “These conditions raise substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern. The financial statements do not include any adjustments that might results from the outcome of this uncertainty.”
The school district’s budget gap increased to $70.8 million from its announced deficit of $61 million due to expenses accrued through pension payments and early retirements; but a number of painful cost-cutting measures, including the furlough of 91 per diem school safety officers, slashing the number of school nurses, employee salary and benefits adjustments, and closing school buildings on weekends and cutting back weekday hours have had a positive effect on the gap.
Those measures, said school district spokesman Fernando Gallard, helped the district shrink its budget gap by almost half, to $38.8 million. The budget gap must be closed by June, which marks the end of the current fiscal year. For its part, in a response to the controller’s audit, the school district released a statement that reiterated its stance that it is doing everything possible to close the gap.
“As discussed in the audit, district management shares a number of the concerns about the future financial direction of the district. The immediate concern is the budget shortfall projected for fiscal year 2012,” read the statement in part. “Substantial progress has been made in that regard, and the remaining balance is now estimated to be $38.8 million. The district continues to meet its financial obligations including the payment of debt service and salaries, and will continue to do so in a timely manner.”
Mayor Michael Nutter, who recently reallocated funds and resources that allowed school-attached recreational centers to remain open on Saturdays and for certain weekday after-hours programming to continue in school district buildings, is cognizant of the issues facing the district, and voiced his confidence that the school district can fix its problems.
“It has been evident for some time to everyone that the school district has been experiencing financial challenges since at least last year, and through the current fiscal year and into the next. We now have a much better picture of what the district’s challenges are,” Nutter said. “The key here is that the School Reform Commission and Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen are keenly focused on those financial challenges and are working with me and my administration on a daily basis to address those challenges.
“We will ensure financial stability, fiscal discipline and continued operations of the School District of Philadelphia on behalf of our children, their parents, teachers and the City of Philadelphia.”
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.”
Reform continues to be the buzzword in education circles, and that buzz is becoming louder, thanks to a pair of developments.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett last week signed legislation that at once sets the commonwealth’s education budget and enacts several phases of public education reform. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Corbett’s budget invests more than $11.35 billion in the three layers of public education, and, coupled with recent legislation that will reform both charter school funding and teacher evaluations, will lead to a smoother running and more accountable public education system.
“In order to bring about systemic changes to public education, reforms must start with those who teach in and lead our schools,” Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said in a statement released by the DOE. “Governor Corbett’s initiatives will not only raise the bar for effective educators, they will ensure that every student has access to quality academic programs.
“This new approach will ensure that those who are responsible for educating Pennsylvania’s students have the knowledge and skills necessary to prepare students for postsecondary success,” Tomalis continued. “It will also provide important information for public schools to direct the more than $500 million invested each year into professional development to areas that will impact students.”
Pennsylvania now joins 22 other states in utilizing student achievement in evaluating its teachers.
Corbett’s budget has drawn considerable scorn for its use of education block grants that, in essence, decreases the overall education budget. But Corbett has repeated that painful cuts must be made in order to cut the commonwealth’s $700 million budget gap.
House Bill 1307 seems to fit right into these plans, as it further instigates education reform while providing the opportunity for the state to save money.
The bill, introduced by state Rep. Duane Milne, R-Chester County, amends the Public School Code of 1949. Milne’s legislation would pave the way for the state to take over distressed schools and districts, and immediately turn them into charter schools.
Milne’s plan would also call for the creation of an education chief recovery officer at the state level, a position not unlike that currently held by Thomas Knudsen, the CRO of the School District of Philadelphia.
According to the amendment, a school/district can be considered in a distressed financial state if it meets any of these criteria: has failed to pay its staff for ninety days; has outstanding tuition due to another school district that has gone unpaid as of January 1 of each school year; hasn’t paid its board of directors; has defaulted on bond payment; operates at a deficit greater that the value of its holdings, and has contracted a loan without DOE approval.
A takeover-handover of distressed schools into charter leaders is an idea long supported by Dr. Walter D. Palmer, a charter school pioneer who has taken the School District of Philadelphia to court over the district’s handling of certain charter school funding and enrollment issues.
Palmer says HB 1307 has a chance, if implemented correctly.
“For me, it’s a good thing. Although charters aren’t the cure-all for everything, it’s an option and gives parents choice,” said Palmer, founder of the North Philadelphia-based charter school bearing his name. “The problem I continue to have is of the corporate takeover. Don’t turn it over to corporations to run them. We don’t want Education Management Organizations [EMOs] to run these schools.”
The bill, however progressive, will not contribute financially to any of the affected school districts — and unless funding is part of any plan, it is doomed to fail, said Pennsylvania Senator Wayne D. Fontana.
“The drastic reduction in basic education funding imposed by the [Corbett] administration in last year’s budget has resulted in a growing number of distressed schools and has forced school districts to cut teachers, counselors and other essential staff, reduce the number of textbooks that can be purchased, eliminate arts and music programs and other extracurricular activities while class sizes grow,” Fontana said. “Unless we provide adequate funding and give school districts the resources they need, the list of distressed school districts across the commonwealth will continue to grow.
“It is important to remember that the biggest losers in all this are the students,” Fontana continued. “We owe it to our children to find solutions that enable them to get the best education possible. This legislation further compromises students in distressed schools, as it does not address the biggest need — which is adequate funding and support.”
Increasing the level of financial transparency, upgrading communications between all levels and departments, establishing a dialog with parents, and improving the quality of education are at the top of the agenda for new School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr.
Hite said during a meeting this week with The Tribune Editorial Board he will present his road map on just how to accomplish those goals when he publishes a report detailing his plans in roughly 90 days.
“The next 90 days or so will be spent really looking at every part of the system, trying to engage the public in a process to talk about what they want to see in the system, and what things we do well and don’t do well, and getting into as many schools as possible,” Hite said. “Really try to determine the structures and systems in place.
“At the end of the 90 days, after I have gotten all the information, I want to then tell everyone, ‘This is what I’ve found, here are all of these plans, and I’m going to try to make sense of all this stuff, here’s what I’m going to do about and here’s how you hold me responsible.’ The plan is what I plan to do about it, and how people can hold me accountable for it.”
Hite referred to sorting out several overlapping documents: the Five-Year Reorganization Blueprint, the FY 2012–2013 school budget and the recently released Five-Year Financial Plan. All of these documents were drafted by the district’s chief recovery officer, Thomas Knudsen, who will most likely stay on as chief financial officer, Hite said. Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon appears to be staying on as well.
While Hite’s tenure as superintendent of the Prince Georges County Public Schools system led to that district having a budget surplus upon Hite’s departure earlier this year, Hite said PGCPS shares many similarities and challenges with Philadelphia’s school district.
“It is a tremendous challenge, but I didn’t see it as something that is much different than what many urban districts are facing across the country,” Hite said, referencing the recently-concluded strike by Chicago teachers, and the similar conflicts with school districts in Los Angeles. “In the last three years, [at PGCPS] we’ve had to lay off 1,300 individuals and cut over $300 million out of our budget.
“So many urban districts are struggling with some of the same issues. I like to describe it as the ‘new normal,’ and gone are the days where we’ll see millions in stimulus flow through. We’d most likely see five percent, 10 percent increases over the previous year’s budgets. I think now is the time when we’re really talking about doing more effective things with what we have, and controlling what we have a lot more efficiently and effectively.”
A way to do that is to advocate on behalf of students for more money at the state level. Hite repeatedly mentioned that advocacy is one of his strongest suits — and that he would personally get involved in that process.
“On the other hand, I believe that [state public education officials] have to see an improved product and an improved system to which they’d want to invest - which means [the school district] has to be a lot more efficient, a lot more transparent and a lot more effective with the monies we have,” Hite said. “I think you have to prove your worth to some degree at first, and that’s the other side of it. So that it’s an advocacy on one side, but on the other side, it is a description that we are putting this house in order and moving as much money as we can to support students in schools and in classrooms.”
Hite, who knows former superintendent Arlene Ackerman well, and is aware of the controversy her tenure and subsequent departure caused, understands that his administration will face close scrutiny, especially if Hite doesn’t reach the more easily attainable goals — which could produce tangible, if tiny, gains. But Hite said if the goals are set up properly, and with the right focus, then students would be among the first to embrace them.
“Naturally, my goals are centered around making sure that students have the types of opportunities beyond high school, and the skills to do the things they want to do once they leave high school, whether that means moving into the work world or into higher education … there’s 140,000-plus students still being educated in this city, and so one can’t give up hope, because then we’re giving up on the students here,” Hite said, noting that he’s used to answering questions about the high turnover rate for superintendents. Hite was the seventh superintendent of PGCPS had during Hite’s 13 years there. “So I think when you start to get at all those structural issues, all of the inefficiencies, all of the disbelief and all of the skepticism, one at a time. And I think you start dealing with those issues one at a time.
“If individuals don’t have faith that the school system can deliver on something, then perhaps we don’t try to do a hundred different things and not deliver any. Perhaps we try to do one or two, and do it really well — so we are actually delivering a product.”
Given all the challenges facing the district, it is fair to question Hite’s motives for even considering the job in the first place. But beyond these problems of today lies optimism of a better public education tomorrow, and Hite said that’s why he came here.
“I am interested in making a difference for all children, and I see this as a tremendous opportunity. The fact that we have no money, the fact the schools are low-performing, the fact that there’s a high dropout right, the fact that Latino males are dropping out faster than anyone else, the fact that many of our schools are in disrepair — we have to think differently; and that’s the opportunity part of it,” Hite said. “I tell staff members that this will be tough, but I appreciate their work. I acknowledge them. I want to hear them, and I want to get to see them in their classrooms as much as possible. This is how we begin a dialog, knowing we can’t continue down the same path.
“This not about me,” Hite continued. “This is about all those young people we educate, and we all have to believe in them.”
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.
Thomas Knudsen to act as superintendent, finance chief
The Philadelphia School District — on the heels of announcing last week that it has established a new superintendent search team — made a major announcement regarding its organizational structure and finances.
The School Reform Commission meeting Thursday night revealed the district will have to cut an additional $61 million by June, and named a new “chief recovery officer” to assist in its struggling financial state.
The SRC named Thomas Knudsen, the turnaround expert who led the Philadelphia Gas Works to fiscal sanity, as chief recovery officer, a position which will function as both superintendent and chief financial officer. Leroy Nunery, the former interim superintendent, and Michael Masch, the former chief financial officer, will both continue to work for the district, but in diminished roles.
It was also revealed Thursday that the district will be withholding promised raises from blue collar workers who were scheduled to see increases in their salaries starting this week.
Capping the school district’s tumultuous last few weeks was the civil lawsuit filed by former district executive John L. Byars. Byars’ suit alleges he was made the scapegoat when critics decried a no-bid contract awarded to minority firm, IBS Communications Inc. Byars alleges that former superintendent Arlene Ackerman not only steered IBS to the contract, but signed off on the $7.5 million plan, even though there were plans to award that contract to the Newton, Bucks County-based firm Security & Data Technologies.
Byars filed his suit Jan. 11, and named acting school superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II, Ackerman, the SRC, the School District of Philadelphia, Robert Archie Jr., Denise McGregor Armbrister, Johnny Irizarry, Estelle G. Matthews, Jamilah Fraser and Shana Kemp as defendants.
There are other issues swirling around the district as well.
Commissioner Feather Houstoun displayed a presentation at Thursday’s meeting that she called “budget stress arithmetic” to comment on the state of the district’s finances, and the appointment of a permanent superintendent search team. Joseph Dworetzky, who is also named in the suit, has been appointed a member of the search team.
“We’re not as well off as we were three months ago,” Houstoun told the audience. “We are losing ground for a number of reasons.”