HelenGym's blog

Philadelphia, its good old Italians and Jews and cute casinos as “mousetraps,” according to God or Steve Wynn

OK, are people seriously saying this man will save Foxwoods or confirm its smarmimess and ludicrousness? or are those two the same thing these days?

The man who once said: "Las Vegas is sort of like how God would do it if he had money" is trying to ooze his way into Philadelphia charming us natives with lines like:

  • "It's not going to be a hotel. It’s going to be the cutest casino that you’ve ever seen."

No resolution on violence at South Philadelphia High School

It’s hard to look at the findings of the District’s independent investigation into the December 3rd violence at South Philadelphia High School without significant shock and outrage. (Read the full report at the Notebook). After all, this was an incident in which more than two dozen Asian immigrant students were assaulted throughout the day in multiple attacks which sent 13 youth to the hospital at a school with a documented history of violence in general and against Asian immigrant students in particular.

Yet nearly three months after the December 3rd violence, we have a report that – while providing some insight – mostly sets us right back where we were before: with glaring discrepancies between accounts of student victims and witnesses and findings which appear to absolve the District of any responsibility. The investigation was based on interviews with only a fraction of student victims and witnesses and contained vague innuendos that served to distract from the main question: could the school/District have done anything differently to avoid or minimize the assaults?

A Frightening Analysis
The report confirms widespread violence on Dec. 3rd that began first thing in the morning and was well known to school officials.

Before 9 a.m. a student was attacked in a classroom (p. 6: previous testimony indicated that more than a dozen students had rushed into a classroom as part of an attack on an Asian student where, among other things, they threw a desk on top of him). By mid-morning there was a "surge" of 30-40 students whose "probable . . . intent was not benevolent" (p. 11) into a hallway while school staff frantically moved Asian students into classrooms. Security footage documented a "wave of 60-70 students" (p. 12) in the lunchroom hallway "surging forward" toward an attack on a small group of Asian students (p. 13). School police detained three to five students who had dragged an Asian girl down the stairwell by her hair (p. 15). After school, more than a dozen Asian students, most of whom required medical attention, were attacked by 20-40 students with more than 100 onlookers surrounding them (p. 23).

And yet, at no point does the report question the actions of school officials.

Hey Council! School news you need to know

There’s a lot happening over at the School District that every council member -and state legislator - ought to know. So if you haven't already, pick up the latest issue of the Public School Notebook for more information:

  1. First up, Renaissance Schools – yet another list of failing schools (this time there are 26 schools:14 identified Renaissance schools, 12 “alert” schools), yet another set of promises to parents and children skeptical about the District’s insistence that this time it will be different. Consider the families at Douglass Elementary which has had 7 principals in 7 years, or Dunbar Elementary which, if chosen a Renaissance school, will be on its third manager in 8 years. Or Stetson, which along with Dunbar, was the first wave of promised change through privatization. Stetson too is listed as a potential Renaissance school.

    What’s the problem with Renaissance? My main concern has been that the District is stuck on seeing transformation via management and contracts, rather than defining what substantive changes are going to happen in the life of a child. I’d like to know whether Renaissance schools are going to reduce class size, offer more literary specialists, provide home-school liaisons, improve school food and provide a full library and build science labs? Are they going to revamp discipline, provide real professional development, analyze and publish studies on their improvement, and invest in their teaching force rather than threaten them into compliance? A number of Renaissance Schools have significant English Language Learner populations. Are they going to provide a model bilingual program, diversify their hiring, create a multicultural curricula that engages students? Are they diversifying their curricula overall? Or is it really just a change of names at the top of the masthead, a “trust us, we’ll get some good folks in there with a track record” which is basically what parents have heard for a decade now.

    The Notebook has done an excellent job compiling a full summary of information on Renaissance. In addition, look for the latest issue of the Notebook which focuses exclusively on understanding school turnaround. Renaissance School meetings are happening all around the city. We need city and state leaders present to hear the frustration parents and communities are feeling and to bring more accountability to the District.

  2. School Choice: Research for Action has a new study out on the expansion of choice options in the district, which has cost the district hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade – it’s been the District’s single most decisive change – yet has led to limited choice options for the majority of students seeking a way out of their neighborhood high schools.

    70 percent of District eighth graders participated in the application process to begin ninth grade in fall 2007. However when the dust settled, only 45% were enrolled at any District school to which they applied. In other words there are not enough “seats” in schools of choice for the number of students trying to choose. This means that in most cases high schools are selecting students rather than students choosing schools, robbing students and families of the agency that school choice is supposed to provide.

    That’s a pretty serious indictment that needs careful review and consideration. Since 2002, the District has nearly tripled the number of high school options, and through charters has created the second largest school district in the state. The investment of resources and personnel has been tremendous. Yet for high school, more than 50% of kids seeking out of their neighborhood school can’t find another seat. It’s also worth noting that as the investment has spread to create options, disinvestment in our neighborhood schools remains a problem. In Imagine 2014 it was hard to determine how much investment there was for the average comprehensive high school. There were counselors to be sure, which was a helpful boost, but how significantly was life going to be different for the average high school kid at say, Gratz or Bartram?

    RFA’s report issues a strong call for investment in neighborhood high schools as well as provides recommendations for improving the high school selection process. Worth the short 8-page read.

A low blow by Patrick Murphy on immigration

Last week, Patrick Murphy was one of ten Democrats in Congress to sign onto an anti-immigrant resolution which, among other things, states:

". . . any immigration reform proposal adopted by Congress should not legalize, grant amnesty for, or confer any other legal status condoning the otherwise unlawful entry or presence in the United
States of any individual."

I’ve admired Congressman Murphy’s fight for quality health care reform, his stand on the hopefully soon-to-be-defunct “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy and a general can-do attitude of a younger member of Congress. On his website, he even lists immigration as a constituent service, which I initially thought was encouraging and an indication that the issue was an important one for him.

In 2006, Patrick Murphy ran on a platform that notably opposed legalization, so some might argue that the guy is the type that sticks to his guns. On the other hand, things have changed since 2006 when anti-immigrant rhetoric was reaching its peak. I had hoped he wouldn't be the kind of guy Stephen Colbert described as believing "the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday."

Polls show a significant majority of Americans support immigration reform that includes some form of legalization. Political candidates who seek to run on primarily anti-immigrant rhetoric largely fail to win office.

I cannot fathom why anyone who’s young, progressive and looking for a bright political future – especially because he represents Philadelphia and Bucks and Montgomery counties – thinks it’s advantageous to sign onto a resolution that’s not only dopey (invoking "peace, prosperity, liberty and national security") but backwards socially and politically.

For one thing, if the Congressman opposes legalization, what exactly is his solution for the millions of immigrants who are here and the tens of thousands of immigrants in and around the Philadelphia area? mass deportation? indefinite detention? A notice that says: Please go away?

Really Mr. Governor?

Why grow a conscience now?

"I signed this [table games] bill despite the misgivings I have about it," Rendell said soon afterward at a news conference in his Capitol office. "I have serious misgivings about 'sin' taxes as a way to go. There is no sense of celebration."

Among other thing, it should be noted that the Governor was willing to:

  • Hold up the state budget for more than 100 days to resolve gambling revenue;
  • Hold hostage state universities for months longer, tying their state money to passage of table games;
  • Forego a tax on the billion dollar natural gas industry even though it could bring in the same amount of revenue as table games; and
  • Threatened to lay-off 1,000 state employees in the days leading up to the bill's passage.

Doesn't exactly sound like a man wracked by guilt does it?

Don't be sorry, Mr. Governor. It's not like you were alone in the effort. It took a Supreme Court decision last spring to overturn political gambling contributions. It took the sneaky and possibly illicit lobbying activities of the Pennsylvania Casino Association (headed by the father-daughter team of a former Supreme Court Justice) to ply the legislature. It took millions of dollars in campaign contributions from personal friends and donors.

And look what that bought. As Paul Boni noted in his excellent op-ed last week, the new table games legislation now allows:

  • Slots on credit, because no one should stop gambling just because they ran out of money!
  • Classifies casino employees as “essential workers.” Because no one should value a casino less just because daycares, libraries, parks and rec centers close!
  • Virtually free table games licenses and taxes them at a rate lower than the working poor (16% the first year, 14% from year 2 on out)!
  • Permits members of the Gaming Control Board to be casino employees because who better can regulate the very industry that pays them!

After all, Mr. Governor, think about how much you pinned the state budget on gambling – it’s the second highest revenue generator. Second only to education funding, gambling in PA is your legacy and, if certain lawmakers continue to attack the education formula, it could be your lasting legacy.

Don't back down now. Embrace the PA you created.

Just a few of my favorite things: The best of YPP 2009

Whatta year it’s been at YPP. From libraries to casinos, Seth Williams’ victory to Arlen Specter’s fight for political survival, from the tanking economy to School District chaos to the downward spiral of the Nutter administration – there was no shortage of things to write about and no shortage of work where YPP’s writer/activists were seeking change.

The year opened with hope and promise, from Ray to Dan to Marc’s call to arms:

And our job as activists is to keep building the movement not just to save our libraries but to change our government. Sooner or later we will find political leaders who understand that they can build on our movement rather than trying to govern in opposition to it.

It might be Michael Nutter. It might be someone else. But it will happen, because when the people are united in struggle in a liberal democracy, it always does.

In my opinion the YPP community more than delivered.

YPPers helped elect Seth Williams to office, championed libraries (in posts too many to highlight), campaigned against stupid cycling laws, got election returns published, watched Foxwoods go down and fought predatory casino legislation, held Specter’s feet to the fire, and had our fair share of laughs along the way. I loved YPP’s work this year in cross-posting with two new blogs – the Public School Notebook and Media Mobilizing Project. I deeply appreciated the opportunity to hear from the front lines of health care reform (Marc), environmental activism (Brady) and One Philadelphia’s work in redefining progressive economics for a progressive city (Stan). I also loved the addition of new writers like MMP’s Bryan Mercer and Todd Wolfson and their insights into media justice and the SEPTA strike. Thanks for the education y’all.

Thanks as well to the whole YPP community for allowing me to share and discuss some of the work I’ve been doing, from campaigning to get BRT patronage off the District payroll (which I first wrote about here at YPP 18 months ago) to challenging problematic city immigration policies to fighting Foxwoods and continuing the campaign against predatory gambling. YPP helped me “break” another story here (via the Notebook) by writing about the surprise resignation of SRC Commissioner Heidi Ramirez. It was sad to note that a June post on violence against Asian students became all too prescient about December’s appalling attack on dozens of Asian students at South Philly High and the school, District and Mayor’s equally appalling (lack of) response.

Like many folks, I’m not sure how much time I’ll have in the new year, but I’m looking forward to new writers and new ideas, and I’ll always be reading.

A few of my favorite posts of the year:

  • Hannah Sassaman’s reportback on the Sugarhouse action which resulted in the arrests of 14 anti-casino activists. I can’t tell you the number of times I was told that casinos in town were a done deal and to stop wasting my time. But this action showed that the fight is as strong and frankly as smart and relevant as ever.
  • Brady’s reporting on the sins of the natural gas industry and in particular the outrage of not taxing them was an absolute eye opener for me. It would of course make sense that our worlds would ultimately collide. With the potential demise of the table games bill (dare I hope), Rendell this past week announced a look into taxing the natural gas industry.
  • Since YPP's crazy ex-server holds hostage Dan's post on why the Dad Vail will be back in 2010, I'll put up his beautiful rowing post from last spring. It was great to see someone incorporate their love and passion for something into moving posts that were both personally and politically relevant.
  • In addition to Jennifer’s many posts on the criminal justice system, she really does her thing here calling out the media for its framing of women and violence and pointing out the things we should have noticed.
  • YPP's best work is in the dialogue that follows. In that vein, I enjoyed the responses on teacher merit pay. It was a spirited and pointed discussion that stayed civil and smart even when we didn’t always agree.

Thanks Daily News: How the media fosters ignorance of Asians and immigration

I cringed when I saw the cover of this morning’s Philadelphia Daily News: the blurred back of an Asian man with the headline "The lonely, illegal world of ‘Mr. Cheng’."

After all, how many Daily News covers do you see with Asians on them? So now we get a full cover story devoted to an Asian resident of this city, and darn if it isn’t a surprise that:

  1. we’re anonymous;
  2. we’re illegal; and
  3. we’re a symbol of a horde of illegal immigrants secretly hiding in Philly (1 of 103,000!).

A few years back, I worked with the reporter, Julie Shaw, who was circumspect and responsible in covering a case I was working on about a deaf Indonesian boy seeking political asylum. I don’t think there’s any deliberate intent to do harm here on her behalf. But the problem with the story is that it takes an extremely inflammatory issue – illegal immigration – and presents it through an extremely narrow frame without any sort of context, commentary or perspective. It alone doesn’t exude ignorance but it fosters it.

It’s not like the Daily News regularly covers immigration issues so it’s hard to think that this story fits any broader purpose than something rather exploitive, no? Hey, got a lead on a random Asian undocumented worker. Let’s follow him and report on where he lives with other undocumented people, where he works with other undocumented laborers, how he gets paid with "illegal" wages, and quote him saying how grateful he is to be working while other "real Americans" are unemployed – then let’s see what our readers think about it!

Anyone else wonder how that will go?

The story becomes more problematic when paired with the accompanying sidebar that presents a "crackdown" on illegal immigration framed entirely from ICE's point of view. Here we get real specific about who ICE’s "illegal" targets are:

The office is aware of immigrant communities' use of temporary-employment agencies to find jobs for undocumented workers. It sees such agencies as a threat.

Such agencies serve immigrants not only from Indonesia, but have cropped up to serve Hispanics from Central and South America, Africans, Chinese and Vietnamese, according to ICE.

Then to really bring out the knee-jerk reactionary in you, there's the online poll that asks you to vote on, yes, who to blame!

Who do you blame for illegal immigration?

  • The illegals
  • The employers
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • No one. That’s how my family came to this country

Way to really get people informed on immigration guys!

This whole package is frankly appalling in its ignorance of why there are so many undocumented people in the U.S. It treats immigrants as little more than cheap labor, and overlooks the critical role of family in drawing and keeping immigrants here as well as the complicated mixed status of a significant portion of American families. It gives no sense of contributions immigrants make overall to the culture or economic revitalization of cities in general and Philadelphia in particular (Washington Avenue, Chinatown, West Philly, Olney, etc.). And it presents ICE as some sort of protective line between real Americans and "the illegals" (cue scary music here) when in fact ICE has made it into the headlines far too often for their human rights abuses, ranging from Texas’ T. Don Hutto facility which abusively imprisoned children and political asylees to horrible immigration raids to deaths of immigrants in ICE custody.

In 2007, I worked on a case involving a young Chinese mother, Jiang Zhen Xing, who miscarried twins following a violent deportation attempt where she was denied adequate food, water and medical attention. This happened during a scheduled visit with her immigration officer at 16th & Callowhill Streets. While her husband and two young sons waited outside, ICE officials dragged her through a back door and shoved her into a van, bruising her in the process. During the ride to JFK Airport, Philadelphia ICE officers mocked her cries of pain and told her “no more American babies for you.” Their plan? To dump her onto a plane to Beijing which would have been 2,000 miles away from any relatives, without clothes, ID, money, or any notification to any family member. When her husband asked anxiously about her whereabouts hours later, the ICE officer at 16th & Callowhill refused to answer his questions, instead smugly advising him to come back the next morning when they’d tell him where she was.

It’s hard for me to understand what kind of mentality it takes to deny a pregnant woman in obvious distress and severe pain any amount of basic care. But it was clear from the commentary stream on philly.com and messages at Asian Americans United that plenty of people operate on only one plane – if she was undocumented, for any reason, she had it coming.

Today, we’re looking at a City administration that appears to be breaking a decade-old understanding that police would not conflate immigration with community policing. At last report, a Pennsylvania prison is now taking the former political asylees of T. Don Hutto, including children, contributing to PA's ever increasing incarceration rates. The D.A.’s office now plays a key role in a relatively new system of information sharing that strengthens ties among the D.A.’s office, the courts, the police, the City Solicitor and ICE. Meanwhile, we have a rapidly growing population of immigrants hightailing it out of Philadelphia for the suburbs – losing Philadelphia residents, commerce, and economic and neighborhood revitalization opportunities.

More than ever, as the city debates serious issues around immigration and specifically deportation, community policing and a new District Attorney, we need a sense of responsibility and rigor in the debate around immigration. Instead what we get from the Daily News is the "illegal world of ‘Mr. Cheng’."

It’s yet another example of a historic cycle of scapegoating immigrants in difficult economic times. It promotes and fosters ignorance on a critical issue of concern impacting the region. It paints Asians in particular and the broader immigrant community in broad strokes and feeds into anti-immigrant sentiment with "blame polls" that themselves reflect appalling ignorance.

I’d like to think that stories like this just end up lining my kids’ guinea pig cage, but the fact of the matter is that many of us will be working to combat the ignorance and fallout for a long time to come.

High School graduation exams: money, politics, lobbying and the usual stuff that makes PA education so "meaningful"

Ways of tackling the drop-out crisis that make me happy

Philly Student Union members cut a CD addressing the drop out crisis to raise attention to the issue and raise funds for a great org whose 99% graduation rate is testimony enough of their success. Check out Koby's pitch below, listen to the CD and donate here.

Ways of tackling the drop-out crisis that do anything but

This month the state Board of Education approved new state graduation exams for all high school students in Pennsylvania. The "Keystone Exams" had been rejected year after year by an overwhelming majority of school boards, education organizations and school advocates. (Exception: Both Mayor Nutter and School Chief Arlene Ackerman endorsed the idea.)

The ten exams cover basic high school subjects like algebra and science. Students must pass the exams every year in order to pass their class and must pass six out of the ten exams in order to graduate. Students who don’t will be denied a high school diploma but the larger likelihood is that they’ll drop out if they fail a number of tests. This has been the trend in a number of states as I wrote about last year. The exams go into effect in 2014.

As we know, it’s not a Pennsylvania project if there’s not appalling amounts of money and financial contributions involved. In my post last year, Josh inquired about the cost of administering such tests. Here they are: $176 million to develop the exams and $31 million a year (borne by local districts) to administer them. Cost of increased drop out rates in a city that doesn’t need it: priceless.

Predatory lending and why casinos become more and more like hell

Airplane-5
Photos c/o Casino Free Philadelphia

As a number of groups appropriately mark and protest Day 100 without a state budget, it should be noted that one of the primary reasons for the budget hold-up is . . what else? Gambling of course.

While day care centers are shutting down and people go without paychecks, legislators are fighting over expanded gambling via table games and a new proposition that should ensure that casinos are pure misery: gambling on credit.

The table games law (SB711 which was supposed to be only about gambling reform -Note: This is also in the latest SB1033 reintroduced last night) now includes Sect. 1326 A/B and Sect. 1504. These lift a former ban on slots on credit and now allow casinos to become check cashers and, yes, lenders for both slots and table games. Even better: though there's an extensive section on legislating how to fill out a credit application, there's nothing about basic consumer protections to avoid predatory lending or stop problem gamblers from losing everything at the penny slot machines.

Philly consumer advocate Lance Haver told me that asking for basic protections like fee and check cashing limits as well as wait periods for credit card applications is the most minimal bit of protection on an otherwise horrible idea.

Sen. Farnese is trying to move an amendment that would limit free alcohol and stop slots on credit. He's falling short on his votes however. Other local supporters of his bill are Sens. Kitchen, Stack and Hughes, among others.

At the end of the day though, gambling on credit just ensures that casinos are just becoming a little more like hell every day.

Nutter comes out swinging on the BRT

It was a long and torturous wait, but it was worth it:

During a meeting in his Cabinet Room with a small group of reporters, Nutter said he favored shifting the responsibility for setting property values to the city Finance Department.

He also wants to end an arrangement under which 80 BRT employees - half the tax board's staff - are on the school district's payroll, enabling them to circumvent policies governing city government workers, such as the requirement that they live in Philadelphia and a ban on political activity.

"Every employee should be held to the same standards," Nutter said.

He said he would also push to change the process under which city judges appoint the BRT's seven-member board. That practice has left the agency in the hands of political insiders influenced by party leaders such as U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of Philadelphia's Democratic Party, and former Democratic State Sen. Vincent Fumo, a convicted felon.

Instead, Nutter, citing property assessments as a vital city function, said the mayor's office should appoint tax board members.

While these proposals have not been incorporated into any specific bill, Nutter highlighted them as components necessary in any legislation he would support.

The Mayor's plan is critical because it precedes the unveiling of a Council proposal tomorrow. The primary difference? Whether to bring the BRT school district employees onto the city payroll - the Mayor says yes; Council says ............. nothing about it - and for no reason.

Even BRT advocates like Councilman DiCicco muster up incompetence in defense of the School District employees:

"The patronage employees become a good scapegoat . . . because they don't have the skills that are necessary to do the job correctly, through no fault of their own," he said yesterday.

Rrrriggghhhht. (Sam had the best response on the original post above.)

So many thanks to the Mayor for holding firm and setting the bar. As for Council's bill, while it's a start, the smell around the BRT will still linger as long as the bill leaves out the School District employees. As the Mayor's Task Force noted, you have to address "consistency and fairness" and the perception that these are "patronage hires who do not add value."

You can't do reform half way, and you can't engender the confidence of folks when everyone from the Mayor to the Schools Chief to the School Reform Commission to parent and education advocacy groups to good government groups like the Committee of Seventy are calling for bringing the BRT workers onto the City payroll.

Council stands alone on this one. Let's hope they'll change that.

Legal or not - Do BRT payments violate the law?

It’s a question that Parents United for Public Education, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and the Education Law Center are considering right now.

At issue is this section of state law, 72 PS 5341.21, which states that responsibility for the expenses of the BRT lies with the county:

§ 5341.21. All salaries provided for in this act and the proper expenses of the board shall be paid out of the treasury of the county.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said they aren’t aware of any other county in the state which charged a school district for property tax assessments. Why us?

Why We're Worried: The School District's Limited Budget Options

At this week’s School Reform Commission hearing, in addition to the grilling of District staff that proved that Heidi Ramirez might very well be the smartest person in the room, was – finally – a presentation on the School District budget.

It should be noted that through an entire summer, while the state education budget was clearly unraveling, the SRC did not hold a single budget briefing until Wednesday – after delaying their September meeting for two weeks and after the media reported a $160 million deficit that apparently may still be growing.

The District’s budget document is a snapshot of what the district is thinking now that it’s facing the possibility of closing a devastating gap like $160 million. If there’s any indication of how significant a figure this is, the District’s expendable budget (the money that’s not legally obligated) is only about $1.6 billion. That means that a budget gap of $160 million or more is at least a 10% cut.

Here’s what the District listed:

District Budget Options-Sept09

If you look at the document above, there is a big box in the middle that says “CAN’T CUT” and which totals $737 million in legal mandates. Below the box is another $754 million locked into grants and $80 million in food service funds that are subsistence level as is.

But above the box outlined and in bold are specifically delineated line items that are chilling to say the least:

  • School Budgets – instructional and administration – this would be teachers, librarians, aides, discretionary funds, etc.
  • School Operations Support – facilities, transportation, and safety
  • Special Education Operational Funds
  • Administrative Support Offices
  • Counselors
  • English Language Learners Operational Funds
  • Nurses
  • Psychologists

Why in the world the District took the time to outline the last four items as independent line items in particular is what has me baffled, mostly because they are a pretty random selection. Meanwhile, questionable items like the $4 million for the BRT isn’t explicitly listed, nor the employees from the Controller’s Office, nor EMO management fees at $9.2 million, nor consultancy contracts for various entities, nor a host of other things. Instead this list inexplicably goes after the heart and guts of our schools.

What’s goin’ on: health care, what's not being taxed, Metcalfe's homophobia, and juvenile humor at the Inky

Don’t miss this event tomorrow:
Because there just isn’t a more important national issue than passing a quality health care reform bill. And tomorrow is PA’s turn to shine on the national stage:

Health Care for America NOW rally
Tues., Sept. 22
4:45-6 p.m.
Dilworth Plaza
RSVP here.

Don't let the other side have all the fun.
Sept. 12 DC Rally

The Pennsylvania Dim Bulb Award
This week’s winner: Butler County Republican Daryl Metcalfe for his opposition to a resolution naming October Domestic Violence Awareness Month because he claimed it “had a homosexual agenda.” The part he couldn't handle? The fact that one in 33 men are rape survivors or have been subjected to an attack. Again, for the bullhorn, that's rape - not consensual sex.

Those of us in the immigration movement recall Metcalfe’s other dim bulb honors, particularly his 2007 hysteria filled "Invasion PA" report where he claimed that the arrest of people with supposedly Hispanic sounding last names was evidence of a growing criminal illegal population. Even anti-immigrant blowhard John Morganelli thought the report was “deficient” and based on “irrelevant” information. Keystone Progress is urging phone calls – (717) 783-1707 – and emails to Metcalfe (dmetcalf@pahousegop.com) to demand an apology, though Metcalfe has already warned Keystone not to hold its breath.

What it takes
So the legislature finally ended the most embarrassing budget impasse in the nation, closing the gap not only with expanded gambling but a last minute tax on the arts. I’m not against taxes, but I do believe in sharing the pain. Brady and others have alerted us that the Governor and state legislators have chosen to forego a tax on the natural gas industry even though it could help pay for the crap they leave us and provide hundreds of millions in revenue from a billion dollar industry rather than sad sack gamblers and your average concert-goer.

Boys, boys boys:
And finally, Buzz Bissinger makes a subtle debut on the Inquirer opinion page (haven't they hit their quota of blowhard males yet?) with a dig at School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. I’m hardly the last person to critique a schools chief, but really between Harold Jackson’s hit job on Heidi Ramirez and Bissinger’s piece today, there must be something about strong women that makes the Inky’s male columnists reach for the pacifier. I was hoping this would go somewhere, but in the end, it just became pretty juvenile. There’s a lot to say about Dr. Ackerman’s leadership but let’s leave the masturbation and feces references to the clubhouse rather than the news pages, OK boys?

One Crisis Down, Next Up: The School District budget meltdown

No rest for the weary. One crisis may be down, but another looms for the second biggest entity next to city government: the School District of Philadelphia.

One week into school and the School District is facing an almost certain $150 million budget deficit and counting. It’s a number that’s likely to touch every school, and possibly be felt in every classroom in the city.

It’s worth remembering that three years ago, when then-CEO Paul Vallas first announced a stunning deficit, the number came to $73 million – less than half of the anticipated shortfall today.

This is a situation the School District ignored as it padded executive offices and signed off on millions of dollars in contracts for the past five months – despite appeals that contracts should be prioritized or even held off until the state budget came through. It’s a situation the School District steadfastly refused to acknowledge even when the governor’s budget was clearly dead in the water. It’s a situation that the School District’s only apparent preparation for was a “doomsday budget” it passed out to Council last spring in the event of a worst-case scenario.

The doomsday budget is a Plan C for the District, a list of threats that were meant to frighten lawmakers into meeting the Governor’s educational demands. There's only one big caveat. Plan C never happened for the city.

It lists 30+ cuts totaling $300 million and included the following:

  • An increase in class sizes to 33 kids in grades K-3 and 35 kids in grades 4-12;
  • No charter reimbursements for 300 charter school teachers and 7800 charter school students citywide;
    Elimination of more than 130 nurses and counselors district wide;
  • Elimination of summer school and pre-K programs;
  • Elimination of 800 sports teams for kids;
  • One less police officer in the 33 comprehensive high schools;
  • Removal of dozens of kids from getting SEPTA transpasses and partially basing passes on attendance records.

Every single one of the $300 million in cuts comes off the backs of school children in our city.

The BRT Test

Whatever you think about the importance of the Bureau of Revision of Taxes, there’s no question that what the city, and perhaps most importantly the Mayor, does with this mess of an agency is a test of leadership and vision that’s under the public – re: media – scrutiny.

The draft statements coming from the Mayor’s appointed task force aren’t entirely encouraging:

The 85-page report, by a task force of City Council staffers and officials in the Nutter administration, is not a ringing call to remake the BRT.

In fact, Council made sure that it wasn't. The leadership instructed the task force to offer no direct recommendation on how to fix the agency - only alternatives.

One of those possibilities - "Option A" - would make only modest changes, such as improved training for assessors.

Other options would leave the agency intact but allow the mayor and Council to pick the members; or split the BRT into two agencies, one to set values and the other to handle appeals.

"Option D" would wipe out the BRT and put assessments in the hands of city leaders or a new agency. The last three ideas would require approval by city voters, the task force noted.

Which means that significant action on the BRT won’t happen until the 2010 election cycle, way too far down the road.

Meanwhile, half the BRT workers sit on the School District of Philadelphia payroll. The District’s money for these positions runs out at the end of this month, and the question is what to do next.

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