The BRT, patronage, and $5 million of school money

As daunting as the School District’s 552 page online budget is, it’s funny how much it can reveal about ingrained systems that cost our society -- things like say, patronage.

For example, consider the BRT:

Buried at the bottom of page 385 under the category “Undistributed Budgetary Adjustment/Interfund Transfers/Other,” it shows 85 BRT employees on the School District’ payroll for a cost of $4.7 million in FY08. That’s 18% more than it was last year. Next year at $4.9 million it will be almost a million dollars more than just a year ago.

Parents United for Public Education requested a list of the BRT employees (who are listed as real estate assessors). A review found that 74 employees are currently on the District’s payroll. Over 40% of them hold political positions, including two ward leaders and committee leaders.

What’s wrong with this picture? A lot.

  • First, what specifically do these people do on behalf of the schools and why do we need so many of them?
  • Second, the fact that such a large percentage of them appear to hold political positions and are outside the scope of both the city (even though they’re doing city work) and the School District (since they work offsite at the Curtis Center) raises concerns that all the jobs are as necessary and efficient as they ought to be.
  • And finally, $4.9 million may not seem a lot to some people, but it would almost double the arts and music programs in the school that were allotted this year. It would buy back 50 teachers, a third of the number cut this year. It would more than buy back the 25% librarian losses we suffered this year.

Conventional wisdom has been that since the schools receive 60% of the real estate taxes, the District should therefore assume a similar portion of the BRT expenses. However, there’s a big difference between billing the schools for real and actual expenses, and putting 85 employees on the District’s payroll who are outside the supervision of the District.

This isn’t a new struggle. A few years back, former School District CEO Paul Vallas tried to remove the 31 employees from the City Controller’s office who also sit on the District’s payroll (page 362) as well as highlight the BRT employees. It was apparently a lonely and unsuccessful battle.

But it is, as they say, a new day, and it remains to be seen whether things could change under a new administration.

Last week Parents United for Public Education sent a letter to the Board of Revision of Taxes asking them to remove BRT employees from the School District payroll and to justify expenses that compete with the education of kids. It’s not that we want to second-guess the work of the BRT, but we do need some accountability from agencies that park their expenses on our kids’ dime.

For more information, the list of employees, and to read Parents United’s letter to Charlesretta Meade, chair of the BRT, check out Parents United’s website.

The BRT, patronage, and $5 million of school money

Great job, Helen for raising this issue.
Is it just me, or shouldn't our local news media be doing this kind of work?
Did I miss a story in the Inquirer or Daily News? Metro?

Isn't YPP the better medium?

It's also helpful to hear some thoughts on the issue as we move forward to raise it more publicly.

Depends on how you define 'better'

YPP is certainly more interactive than the Inky or PDN, not to mention with less of a conservative slant. On the other hand, the Inky + PDN are read by most likely several orders of magnitude more people than YPP. So, if you want to get attention, the Inky or PDN are a better venue.

My $0.02,
-Z

Depends on how you define 'better'

YPP is certainly more interactive than the Inky or PDN, not to mention with less of a conservative slant. On the other hand, the Inky + PDN are read by most likely several orders of magnitude more people than YPP. So, if you want to get attention, the Inky or PDN are a better venue.

My $0.02,
-Z

The "better" comment is more tongue in cheek

We want to run it through YPP because there are progressive good government thinkers here who can help us clarify arguments and whether we're raising the right questions at the right time in the right way.

I should've seen that

Brain lock on my part.

D'oh!
-Z

Does this skirt the prohibition on City ees in politics?

City employees are forbidden to serve as Ward Leaders or Committeepeople; the restrictions on City employees in politics are pretty stringent. I'm wondering if working for the School District means that you're not a City employee in the way that a regular BRT employee would be, and if this arrangement, therefore, serves to skirt the law on City employees in politics. I'm not accusing - I'm genuinely wondering whether there are different ethics laws that apply to School District employees and other BRT employees.

It might be worth pursuing this question either with the Ethics Board, the Inspector General, or Committee of Seventy.

School District Employees Are Not City Employees

School district employees are not city employees. The City gives money to the School District, but it is a separate entity utimately controlled by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvana--from where it gets most of its money--by gubernatorial appointments. Former Governor Mark Schweiker (now President of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce at three times his old salary) agreed to share his appointing power with Mayor John Street, and it has been generally assumed that Governor Ed Rendell will follow this precedent, but he is not legally required to do so.

The Philadelphia City Charter bans city civil service employees--the vast majority of all city employees--from participating in politics. The Philadelphia City Charter has no jurisdiction over the School District of Philadelphia, and there is no state or federal law banning employees of school districts from political participation. Indeed, the federal trend has been to allow limited political participation from federal employees: both the Philadelphia Green Party and Philly for Change are now headed by federal employees.

While there is no legal authority prohibiting school district personnel from participating in politics, the vast majority of them engage in no political participation other than voting. Their tenure in office is not dependent on political participation, and, like the vast majority of citizens, they find they have other things to do with their time.

The important issue is coerced political participation, and as long as that does not occur, there appears to be little to worry about.

This is a completely separate issue from the question of who should pay for the Board of Revision of Taxes employees, and how many of them are needed, the concern of opening poster Helen Gym. Working for the School District instead of the City does allow them the opportunity to be politically active which they would likely not have working directly for the City of Philadelphia.

And there's the question of what role patronage plays

With any ingrained political system there's always the concern about patronage, especially when there's an issue of employment vs. actual payment of expenses. Do we need 85 jobs, vs. a flat fee for service? What kind of work is being done, do we need all those people to do it? That's where the patronage question might kick in, in addition to Rep. Cohen's question of who pays for it.

Technically, as I said above the City feels like the District ought to pay its share of expenses. Now we can argue that, but putting employees on the payroll in my opinion is not the answer.

One other reason I would challenge the City to reassume the BRT expenses is because real estate assessments would have to be done whether or not the schools benefited from property taxes. The calculation is simple. It's a straight 60% turnover from city to schools, so I don't think the schools are "costing" the city in any clear way I can think. They certainly benefit from it, but that's not a bonus to the district, it's state mandated law that property taxes go to the schools.

While I believe in a fair

While I believe in a fair fight for funding for the School District's children, I am missing this arguement completely.

(A) If people are ward leaders or committee people how does that make them less capable of completing the work?

(B) Public dollars fund the BRT so if it is on the payroll of the District or the City either way it is coming out of public dollars which will ultimately be that other services or dollars would not be there because there are other people working to keep the BRT working well.

I don't get out 4.7 to 4.9 is almost a million dollars more, that is like saying 20% is almost 100%.

Give credit where credit is due the S.R.C was able to cut the useless security contracts recently. They are also looking at the Providers more closely than before.

Just because people are working doesn't make it a bad thing.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter".
Dr Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Clarifications

(A) If people are ward leaders or committee people how does that make them less capable of completing the work?

It doesn't automatically. However, the concern is that the combination of having 85 employees on the District payroll, who work off site without supervision, are highly politically connected, and would be otherwise ineligible under City guidelines (even though they're doing city work by doing real estate assessment) raises questions for us as parents. The question is whether the BRT can justify the work that the people do, and whether they need 85 people to do the work.

(B) Public dollars fund the BRT so if it is on the payroll of the District or the City either way it is coming out of public dollars which will ultimately be that other services or dollars would not be there because there are other people working to keep the BRT working well.

I would have to disagree. I think the question is not who assumes the expense of these jobs but first to ascertain whether these jobs are truly necessary. Second, I would probably challenge the City's argument that the District ought to assume expenses proportional to the revenues it receives. For example, the City receives 40% of the revenues of the real estate property taxes distributed through the general fund to the different departments. But each department doesn't assume a proportion of the expense. It's not accurate to expect the District to do the same.

I don't get out 4.7 to 4.9 is almost a million dollars more, that is like saying 20% is almost 100%.

If it wasn't clear, I meant to say that in FY2009 the BRT expense will be $4.9 million, which is a million more than it was in FY07. FY08 of $4.7 million is 18% more than FY07. I think the document above makes that clear.

We're cynical activists

David, I'm not sure what you're background is, but Ms. Gym and I work around political life and the distribution of money in this city, and it's pretty easy to get discouraged/cynical/disgusted by all the shadiness that goes on with public cash. The amount of questionably relevant jobs both in public agencies and in publicly funded organizations can get pretty overwhelming. It's the kind of thing that's hard to "prove," but when you're close enough to it often enough, you get this feeling.

As soon as I read her description of this list, I got that feeling. Shady, shady, shady.

---
This Too Will Pass, for the guts in your cerebrum.

(A) If people are ward

(A) If people are ward leaders or committee people how does that make them less capable of completing the work?

It makes them illegal to be hired by the City of Philadelphia. So then, if they are going to be 'hired' by the school district, can the school district fire them?

Property Assessment in PA is a County Function

In Pennsylvania real estate assessment is a county function, not a school district function. While it could be argued that shifting the BRT employees back to making them City employees would result in the same expenses being in place for the same general class of taxpayers, in terms of policy, I have no idea why the School District is paying for a County (Philadelphia) responsibility and a county function. As Helen pointed out, the cost of the School District BRT employees means less available funding to be used for (legitimate) School District purposes. I also am unaware of any other situation in PA where a school district is even paying any of the cost of the real estate assessment system. Also, I doubt that the School District has any oversight or management control of the work of the School District BRT employees, as the BRT is a County Board that is operated and managed by Philadelphia.

So is there an appeal to be made at this level as well?

That's very interesting. The BRT board is actually appointed by judges, which I think is a county jurisdiction. The total BRT budget is somewhere around $13 million I think. So are you suggesting that Philadelphia County would in other locales assume that cost?

Helen Expose them dear.

Funny a disabled neighbor has been turned down for her disabled sticker and handicap pole in front of her home. We appealed and guess who is handling the PPA appeals, the BRT, which should have no dealing with the PPA parking permits, investigate please.

rmship@yahoo.com

http://phillyneighborhoods.org/

Philadelphia is special

Philadelphia is special according to the State with are one of the only counties and cities that are the same.

I am sure that has some bearing on it. The School District is also different than many counties in the State when we look at how much percentage wise the State puts into Philadelphia as opposed to the rest of the counties state wide.

I am sure there are reasons why people would have to take a second look or grow a 3rd eye with some of the BRT rulings.

Brady, I have been around the City for a while and have been able to be around and previously work around some our "leaders". I do believe that the employees with the BRT work and perform their job well.

I'd much rather like to see a stronger auditing department in the School District similar to the City with the Inspector General, City Controller, and whatever the title that the Mayor recently appoint another atty for.

I am sure there is many more funds that are misappropriated currently that can be utilized than to worry about working people. I believe that all jobs are relevant.

There may not need to be so many chiefs in certain depts, but 85 employees that are more than likely working hard are not where the larger dollars are being spent.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter".
Dr Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Let's just enumerate the concerns

1) The school district assumes part of the BRT's budget, which is unusual. (Yes, Philadelphia is both a city and a county, but I fail to see how this unique quirk relates to this issue, since neither cities nor counties typically pass real estate assessment costs onto school districts.)

2) The cost-sharing takes the form of BRT employees on the school district payroll, rather than a lump sum contribution or fee-for-service. That is also unusual.

3) Forty percent -- not one or five or ten, but a full forty percent of these 70-odd employees -- either are ward leaders, committeepeople, or connected to the city's political organization in some way. That is an astonishing figure, and suggests that it is not likely an accident. Even if it is in fact legal, it appears to violate the spirit of the ban on holding a city job and a political position jointly. It also means that next year almost $2 million of school district money is paying the salaries of people who hold political positions who are also assessors. That's a lot of escarole.

4) The City Controller's office, too, has employees on the School District payroll, so this is not an isolated problem.

5) This creates a structural problem with accountability, since the school district doesn't have oversight of these employees, they don't work in the building, nor do their checks come from the BRT. Who hires and fires these assessors? How and why were these particular employees selected to be on the school district's payroll rather than the BRT outright?

It's not an either/or

I'd much rather like to see a stronger auditing department in the School District similar to the City with the Inspector General, City Controller, and whatever the title that the Mayor recently appoint another atty for.

You can work on accountability AND ask questions about BRT payroll; it's not an either/or. Both are crucial and it's something that my group, Parents United, is very conscious about -- at the same time that we work to get more funds to schools, the majority of our time is calling upon the School District to be accountable for whatever funds it has.

There may not need to be so many chiefs in certain depts, but 85 employees that are more than likely working hard are not where the larger dollars are being spent.

I think this needs some clarity. In terms of large contract amounts within the District budget, Parents United typically looks at all contracts above a million dollars as pretty significant. The District's largest contract is currently a $30 million annual contract for Community Education Partners, a disciplinary school company with close political ties. So $5 million for the BRT is relatively significant. In addition, the District's five year plan allocates a "discretionary" fund for programs -- in other words a fund not eaten up already by contracts, charters, debt, facilities, and employee benefits and salaries -- that's pegged at $70 million TOTAL over five years. So, again, any entity getting $5 million annually is something we need to look at as among a significant grouping of expenses.

And a couple of other ways in which the BRT expense in context is relevant:

  • in the most recent round of budget negotiations, we have a "close the gap" amount of between $5 to $10 million, so the BRT plays a role in achieving a "balanced budget"
  • the District is targeting for elimination programs that cost well below $100,000, programs which the BRT expense removal could potentially save

More important, though, the BRT, for us, is an important challenge about the kind of entitlement that has taken place in the school district around patronage and no-bid contracts since the state takeover (both related in my opinion). Challenging why the BRT feels entitled to park its expenses on the School District payroll is a challenge as well to other entities who somehow feel free to say: hey it's $2 billion, i want a little of that. It's the same ethos of certain political players feeling like they can have schools hire their pet companies and contracts, force us to accept EMOs and open up unlimited charters without rethinking financial viability, employ friends and relatives, etc.

Now is it eating up the bulk of $2 billion? Maybe not. But let's be clear about what is. There are fixed expenses within the district which I outlined above: salaries and benefits, charters and debt service. These have eaten up 98% of all new money into the district since the state takeover (this is in the District's Five Year Plan).

Leaving now the rest of the 2% of funds, then yes, patronage and contracts are now having an impact.

I am not debating (yet) whether or not the 85 employees are putting in their time. I just don't think it's relevant. You do. That's fine and a debatable point.

But I don't think it's accurate to dismiss the issue because you think $5 million isn't a big deal.

I believe that all jobs are

I believe that all jobs are relevant.

That is some deep stuff there.

You believe that all jobs are 'relevant,' you think the school district should be audited, yet you then think that requesting that the City actually demonstrate what these people are doing and why (we could call that an... audit) is somehow wrong?

Has their even been a complaint with City government that you haven't tried to defend?

Great post

Helen,

This is a great post, and touches on a lot of important issues.

There are a lot of deep problems and logical inconsistencies here that you have really exposed.

Not to rehash everything, but I am stuck in a hotel and bored, so... in effect, as you have stated, the City/BRT has basically turned one section of the school district into a big patronage machine. They cannot give them a City job, so instead, they say they are employees of the school district, give the school district no control over them, and voila!, city law skirted. Who cares if political people are doing their jobs, are not doing their jobs, deserve employeee of the month, whatever. If they cannot be employed at the BRT, they should not be employed at the school district. Maybe we should overturn the ban on political activities for Philadelphia employees, but until then, how about we actually follow the law? Put simply, the City cannot have it both ways. Either deal with the ban or don't, but don't get around it by bloating the school district payroll, while they are cutting after-school programs.

Secondly, as said by you, ELP and others, even if the city is justified in making the school district foot part of the bill for the BRT, which I question, it is ridiculous that it is not on a fee basis. The way it is set up now is to make it audit free. If the BRT had to actually justify what it was charging the school district, rather than simply plunking down unemployable employees, it might have to make sure it was actually performing to a certain standard. So, the increase you mentioned is disconcerting. But even worse is that there is nothing from stopping it happed in FY10, 11, and so on.

A suit against the City?

Helen,

One thing that strikes me is that there might be some leeway with the City ethics laws. Yes, the school district pays their salaries, but, in what sense are they employees of the school district?

They don't work at the school district.
They aren't hired by the school district.
They cannot be fired by the school district.
They cannot be reassigned by the school district.
They cannot have their job description changed by the school district.
They are not in a union that negotiates contracts with the school district.

It seems pretty clear to me that they are City employees, whose work is charged to the district. So, if you can get a legal ruling that they are employees of the City, then 40 percent of them are violating the law banning political activities...

Would that be going to the Ethics department?

The problem we're seeing is two-fold:

1) The BRT employees are certainly in this no-man's land, neither governed by the City or the District, and with the BRT itself not clearly accountable to any entity. So we can and have appealed to the BRT board and the Mayor. You raise an interesting point re: the Ethics Commission and about whether there could be some sort of reclassification ruling, but that brings us to problem #2:

2) This is at its base, very political. The reason this struggle didn't get very far earlier and every time the District raises it (it's always on a cut list, but we end up losing things like teachers, or the Outward Bound program, or librarians instead) was because not a whole lot of people are motivated to see change. There has tended to be little support from City Hall, where officials rely on the support of ward leaders and committee people. In terms of legal rulings, the BRT board is after all appointed by judges.

Strategically though, it's interesting to think about whether an independent body could determine whether or not it's possible to seek an independent judgement. We'll see once some more details come out more publicly.

By the way, are you actually in Poland now?

well done, helen. very well

well done, helen. very well done.

$5 Million and 85 employees

To our friend David I must point out that 85 employees is a greater number of employees than a typical school employs. So if this waste was eliminated we could actually fund one and quite possibly two entire schools. $5 million dollars over a two year time period would supply every public school student with a computer.

David is right though. The state does view Philadelphia as special. That's why they reduced the amount of funding to Philadelphia by 25% back in 1991. As a percentage basis, they still have not returned to that funding level despite the state takeover. It is why we must all contact our state legislators and demand the implementation of the "Costing Out Study" which benefits 474 of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts.

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