Multi-tasking with the 1% … killing the schools AND making the poor pay for their funeral.

I showed here how we could raise $94 million for the School District from the property tax, as requested by the Mayor, and sequester it until the SRC abandons its privatization plan. But is the property tax the best place to get the money? If the City raised the $94 million from some other source, it could still sequester it until the SRC sees the light.

The 1% generally likes the property tax. It’s a regressive tax that falls most heavily on people who are property-rich, cash poor. How sweet it would be to make poor and working people not only pay more, but to make them pay more for destruction of one of their greatest assets, the public school system.

There has been dispute, however, whether a property tax increase as it’s been packaged this year would indeed hit poor people the hardest.

Some progressives think that a property tax increase this year would not be regressive because it would emerge out of the AVI initiative intended to correct the massive inequities in City property assessments. But even if assessments were accurate, and didn’t under-value richer neighborhoods, poor property owners would still get hit hardest from tax rate increases. It’s just the nature of the property tax. It taxes at a single rate that the rich can pay much easier than the poor.

AVI, if done right, is a good thing. Increasing rates, however, to generate more revenue from the tax, might still not be.

Set off without a Paddle: Unpacking the School District’s Disaster Capitalism

Photo by Louie U-A

Last night, a few more details (and scare tactics) from the School District’s radical plan for Philadelphia schools were released. If you didn’t believe that we were in the throes of disaster capitalism, you should now. Watch how the game is played:

The Philadelphia School District's financial situation is so dire that without a $94 million cash infusion from a proposed city property-reassessment plan, schools might not be able to open in the fall, leaders said Tuesday night.

At a district budget hearing, chief recovery officer Thomas Knudsen stressed that the district might fall off "the cliff on which we now stand so precariously" if swift action is not taken.

The district's money problems, coupled with a lack of academic progress and safety issues, have prompted Knudsen to propose a total overhaul of how schools are organized and run. More students would be shifted to charter schools, and the central office would be shrunk, with district schools managed by staff or outside organizations who bid to run them.

See the connections they make? We have a massive budget hole! Ergo, we need a total overhaul of schools!

There. Is. So. Much. Wrong. With. This. Shit. Where to start?

Yes, the School District has a massive budget hole. Let’s all acknowledge that reality, while also remembering that it seems pointless to totally trust the always shifting numbers that come from a School District that still employs the same financial wizards as during the reign of Arlene Ackerman.

The School District will attempt to fill this massive, mostly state-caused, budget hole through the following ways:

  • Slashing wages and benefits from teachers, cafeteria workers and janitors.
  • Forcing charter schools to take seven percent less money, per child.
  • Scaring City Council into coughing up 94 million dollars more.
  • And, in the end, borrowing. A lot. (They will do this by issuing bonds.)

All told, the ‘true’ deficit that they are making up with the above factors is hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Where does the restructuring of the School District, the closing of 40 schools and moving tens of thousands of kids to charter schools, fit into all of this? Surely, this radical change in the district is also a huge part of the savings?

Nope. Not really. Despite needing to plug this massive, hundreds of millions of dollars big hole, this radical reorganization will save something like 33 million dollars (according to the School District’s questionable numbers). Again, compared to all the rest, borrowing included, which stretch well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, these savings— if they are true— are almost a pittance.

As a parent put it eloquently last night:

Parent Rebecca Poyourow said the district was resorting to "crazy-making" rhetoric and unfairly connecting the reorganization plan with the budget.

"It is at best foolish - and at worst devious - for you to choose this moment of fiscal crisis to foist a poorly conceived and primarily ideological reorganization scheme on Philadelphia schools," Poyourow said. "This move smacks of manipulation."

Again, and again, and again, this needs to be stated: The massive overhaul of our schools and the massive budget deficit are not connected.

So, why are the Mayor and Knudsen connecting these two things?

I can think of at least two possible conclusions. First, the radical changes are simply a long-standing ideological push, led by people who believe markets should solve the puzzle that is urban education. (In this game, the Mayor is anywhere from the person behind the scenes, pushing this along, or, alternatively, someone who is also being taken for a ride.) Maybe it really is that simple.

Or second, maybe Knudsen and Nutter are overseeing a bankrupt district, and want to ‘look good’ for Wall Street. They know they need to borrow money to keep this crippled mess hobbling along, so they are going with what they think will appeal to creditors.

Neither, of course, has anything to do with how we properly educate our children. But, this is the shock doctrine, where logic and reason are but constructs to be shouted down.

So, please, ignore the screaming threats of nuclear Armageddon that Mayor Nutter and Knudsen are making on your porch. Because while they are doing so, your television, your dining room set, and your youngest child are all being carried out the back door.

Getting The Story Straight on How Decisions Were Made at The School District

Already the news articles and columns have begun attempting to paint former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman as the victim in recent events. Opinions are being expressed that she must have been telling the truth about her role in the Martin Luther King High School debacle. Annette John-Hall even offered an open apology to Ackerman in her Inquirer column last week.

Before we all appear to have been flashy-thinged by the Men in Black, let’s take a reality check here. We are being asked to believe that all of Ackerman’s testimony in the recent report issued by Mayor Nutter’s Chief Integrity Officer is true. We are being asked to believe that her story, unchallenged by any credible witnesses, is gospel. However, the only others present at meetings described by her—State Representative Dwight Evans and his associates-- refused to give testimony; those present during phone calls were colleagues and staff whose interests lie with Dr. Ackerman.

We don’t need to turn back the pages of recent history too far to remind ourselves of all the prevarications, disingenuous answers and outright lies uttered by Dr. Ackerman during her reign in Philadelphia.

When the story of the backroom meeting with SRC Chair Robert Archie and Dwight Evans broke this past March, Ackerman’s spokesperson maintained that she knew nothing about it. After a month of rumor and speculation, Assistant Superintendent Leroy Nunery finally admitted —through his representative— to being the “unnamed district representative” present at that meeting in Martha Woodall’s April 24 Inquirer story. However, Dr. Nunery’s testimony in the recently published report states not only that he was there but that he immediately reported the events to Ackerman, describing the meeting to her as something out of “the Godfather”. Begging the question: Was she lying then or is she lying now?

Let us recount just some of the incidents over the years in which Dr. Ackerman has been less than honest. Her excuse for not immediately dealing with the crisis at South Philadelphia High School was that an Asian student actually incited the violence by harassing an African-American disabled student, a story for which she offered no proof and which has never been verified. She claimed to be out of town when the attempted silencing and termination of teacher Hope Moffet began; she used that same excuse when the District tried to change the acceptance process for magnet schools without parent notification (she has no phone or email?). She initially denied playing any part in the no-bid contract scandal in which business was diverted from one company, which had already begun the work, to another (non-approved) company. When caught in that lie, she said that she was only trying to help out minority businesses. She held an awards ceremony at Roosevelt Middle School after test scores rose fifty-three points in just two years, a feat which she must known was statistically impossible. She has yet to explain how she allowed several administrators, including South Philadelphia High School Principal LaGreta Brown, to be appointed by the school district without full accreditation. Throughout this past summer, Ackerman insisted that she was not leaving, telling her own supporters “I’m staying” while simultaneously negotiating her exit contract. She violated that same contract by subsequently engaging in public slander against her former colleagues.

Let us not forget the most egregious lie of all: that she did not know that the school district was heading towards a massive deficit which has had a disastrous effect on every school in Philadelphia. She offered her highly questionable explanation in an interview given after she resigned: “I didn’t understand the numbers.”

So when Dr. Ackerman says in the city’s report that she did not know that Melonease Shaw, to whom she paid thousands of school district dollars for “consulting”, was affiliated with Representative Evans, I believe that some skepticism on the part of the public is to be expected. When we hesitate to take seriously her assertion that she never knew that politics was involved in running a major city school district, can you really blame us?

Some crucial questions remain unanswered: how did Mosaica, whose CEO John Porter is a identified in the report as a colleague of Dr. Ackerman’s at the Broad Academy (a privately-funded institution which schools future superintendents according to a pro-charter, pro-voucher curriculum), come to be a finalist on the list of providers at Martin Luther King High? And how is Ackerman shocked, shocked at Chairman Archie’s actions in overriding the wishes of a school community after having done the same herself in more than one instance? When the West Philadelphia High School community protested the unexpected takeover of their school, Ackerman’s response was to accuse the parents of a having a conflict of interest. When students, teachers and parents protested the unjustified giveaway of Audenreid High to Kenny Gamble’s Universal company, their wishes were ignored. Now we are to believe that she found this recent overriding of parents at King “tragic”.

Dr. Ackerman’s account of recent events should be investigated in a follow-up report. The inappropriate, possibly illegal, acts of Chairman Archie and Rep. Evans are brought to light in this report and both should face the consequences for those acts and the subsequent cover-up. Why should we spend the time and energy doing the same regarding Dr. Ackerman’s possible transgressions? First, we must ensure that no future superintendent will be allowed to take on the mantle of royalty and go unchallenged by her own superiors. And the most important reason: because the public has a right to know.

Lisa Haver is an education activist; she recently retired from teaching middle school in Philadelphia.

State Rep. Dwight Evans: Bullies out a competitor like a "bulldog on a bone"

It’s not often a window opens into the backdoor politicking that sheds a light on all the terrible decisionmaking in Philadelphia.

That window blew wide open with this stunning interview State Rep. Dwight Evans gave to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook last week. In the interview, Evans boasted of his effective bullying of the School Reform Commission, Supt. Arlene Ackerman and a competitor in a high stakes game of school operations over Martin Luther King High School.

“I made this case to the [SRC] chairman, I made it to the superintendent, I made it to all of them. I said it to Mosaica – I said it to them all,” said Evans. “I said there’s been a lot of work and effort. ... I just said, 'Look – we have a plan here.'

“I was like a bulldog on a bone,” said Evans.

The quick backstory: State Rep. Dwight Evans was a leading architect behind the state takeover of the Philadelphia Public Schools, and a company with which he has close ties, Foundations Inc., became one of the District’s first EMOs (education management organizations) as well as a major recipient of millions of dollars in school service contracts. Foundations has run Martin Luther King High School for the last eight years, taking in management fees as it ran the school. The school has not done well, to say the least, and its poor academic performance placed it on a list for “turnaround,” a national model of restructuring.

According to District policy, the school formed a School Advisory Council which had parent and school representatives ranking the options for King, which the District unilaterally determined would become a charter school. There were only two choices (a third option pulled out before the vote): Foundations or Mosaica Schools, Inc. The choice, according to parents who spoke to the Notebook, was easy. 8-1, they voted for Mosaica and against Foundations. The School Reform Commission accepted the SAC’s decision last Wednesday.

Cue Rep. Evans in his own words:

Evans: I will tell you, I had a very strong strategy and plan. And I believe I made a very convincing argument.”

Notebook: When after the vote?

Evans: I talked to the chairman, I talked to all of them. I made a very convincing [inaudible]. I showed ‘em all.”

In an interview with the Daily News earlier this week, Evans denied any involvement in the decisionmaking and accused the Notebook of misquoting him. And the Notebook does what any professional journalistic outfit would do; it provides a transcript of the audiotape. Read all about it here at the Notebook.

It’s the latest fiasco behind the difficulty Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has had in convincing school communities that her “turnaround” process for schools is meant to really benefit them. Protests over turnaround – an unproven effort promoted by the U.S. Dept. of Ed – have erupted at West, King, Olney, and Audenried High Schools since the fall.

For example, as a brand new school, Audenried’s students had yet to take the PSSA exams which were supposed to be used to determine which schools were designated for turnaround. The school has protested its designation and has complained that the charter operator, Universal, has had a troubling record as an EMO provider in the District. SRC Chair Bob Archie formerly sat on Universal's board of directors.

West Philadelphia High School will be on its fourth principal in one year and the second dramatic teacher turnover thanks to the turnaround process which requires a new principal and the replacement of 50% of the teaching staff. City Council member Jannie Blackwell has indicated her close involvement in backdoor decisionmaking about West.

Although I admire what State Rep. Evans has done for the Oak Lane neighborhood and a broad visioning of that neighborhood which includes the arts and education, this interview shows he clearly crossed a line in employing brazen tactics to force out a competitor and upend an already fragile process about a minimal attempt at local control.

But hey, it’s all about the kids right?

Hearings, and not hearing

The state Human Relations Commission has voted to investigate whether there was actionable discrimination involved in the situation at South Philadelphia High, and held a preliminary meeting yesterday. Reports from the meeting (including here) show the district superintendent still not willing to hear what some communities are saying about their experiences at the school.

Instead Ackerman seems to be actively trying to create narratives about what the problems are and aren't, and which are the "real faces" of the school:

Ackerman had booked a bus and brought along a number of South Philadelphia High "student ambassadors" - predominantly African American students not involved in the Dec. 3 fights - to talk about their efforts to promote harmony at the school.

Absent were any Asian students who had been victims of the attacks or who had boycotted the school last month.

"We don't know" why Ackerman enlisted no Asian students who were involved in the strife or its aftermath, Glassman said.

Her spokesperson explained the display, weirdly:

"They were hearing from the community, but the community is just one side of the story," she said. "She wanted to make sure that the commissioners heard the students' side - that's one voice that has been silent."

Though I think I live just within the South Philadelphia High School's boundaries, I'm not directly part of any community affected by the conflicts at the school. So I am not invested or accountable in the same way others are, including Ackerman. But from this outside perspective, I am not sure what valid motivation there is for her continued intervention in this manner. (She seems unhappy about it as well, with comments like "this is taking up a lot of my time.")

The Ackerman approach reminds me somewhat of when people absurdly talk about "reverse racism," a fiction. Racism does not work symmetrically in two directions. Systemic power imbalances exist, and matter. Likewise, while all students matter and should be valued and heard ("I'm the superintendent of almost 200,000 kids, and I care about them all"), it is not somehow unfair that students and communities suffering violence and marginalization seized a temporary platform to voice their experiences and ask for redress. It's not unfair that they are organized. All people are not the same, all experiences are not the same, and things do not need to work the same way for everyone all the time. Systemic power imbalances exist, and matter.

While this has become a profoundly complex object lesson in racism, power, and inter-/intra-community violence for all involved and observing, it is sad that district administrators are such major players in that.

What it takes to be the next SRC Commissioner

Because you know, (effectively) ousted Commissioner Heidi Ramirez – who was the SRC’s first Latina member, was described as the SRC's "most qualified" member, had a doctorate in education, devoted her professional career to improving urban schools, and asked (gasp!) questions about needs, costs, budgets and performance assessments of programs during public meetings – really just didn’t cut it.

According to the Public School Notebook, this is the kind of Commissioner the state believes the SRC really needs:

  1. Male
  2. Attorney (Cozen O’Connor)
  3. PA finance chair for McCain/Palin 2008
  4. PA Chair Bush/Cheney 2000
  5. former SEPTA board chair (and we know how pleasantly they’ve acted in a school financial crisis)
  6. Education involvement: Two year stint as Chair of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools, 1999-2001.

In a joint announcement with Sen. Pileggi, Gov. Rendell gave this reason for why David Girard-DiCarlo should sit on the District’s top oversight body:

"He is committed to making public education better."

At least someone can define a floor.

Horsetrading, politics and the future of our schools

Going on the offensive, Sen. Dominic Pileggi called out the Governor on the horsetrading of SRC Commissioner Heidi Ramirez' position:

More than a month ago, Gov. Rendell approached Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) with a question.

A spot was coming open on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, Rendell told Pileggi. Was Pileggi interested in recommending someone for him to consider appointing?

"I told him I would think about it," Pileggi said. "I told him I would see who was interested in serving, someone who I thought would add to the board."

The spot in question belonged to Heidi Ramirez, who shocked the school community Wednesday by resigning her seat. Rendell has said Ramirez told him she felt she no longer fit on a board that rarely questions the policies of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Pileggi's version varies dramatically from the interview the Governor gave to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook earlier this week after Ramirez announced her resignation:

Gov. Rendell said in an interview shortly after her announcement that he had a replacement in mind that had been suggested by Republican Senate leader Dominic Pileggi. However, he insisted that he did not ask her to resign, and in fact told her that he would support her if she stayed -- and he added that, in any case, he couldn't force her out.

"I tried to talk her out of resigning on a couple of occasions, because I thought she was a great appointment," the governor said in a phone interview. "I felt she offered something to the board that nobody else did." He said he told her he'd be "pleased" if she decided to stay, but felt that her mind was made up.

Whatever the real story may be, what we do know is that Heidi Ramirez was in no position to resign a month ago when the Governor was peddling her position for political favors.

The City shouldn't be left off the hook either. Mayor Nutter had to be called in order to get a comment on the record about Ramirez' departure. No one from the City made a public statement about her resignation even though the two people from the Mayor's Education office were present at Ramirez' announcement.

Upheaval for schools: Commissioner Heidi Ramirez to step down

Was the Commission’s most vocal member forced out for asking too many questions?

Update 7 p.m.: The Notebook reports that Gov. Rendell has confirmed that he has received a name from Sen. Pileggi for an appointment to the SRC. The Gov. professed not to know the political affiliation of the individual.

Update 6:15 p.m.: With tears in her eyes, Heidi Ramirez announced her resignation from the SRC stating that her vision was now "inconsistent" with that of the District. After the announcement, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman notably waited to be the last one to stand for Dr. Ramirez' ovation and rolled her eyes before standing.

Sources inside and outside the School District have informed me that School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez will announce her intention to resign from the SRC. The announcement is expected this afternoon when the SRC convenes.

The announcement follows months of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s public critiques and complaints of Dr. Ramirez’ inquiries into areas such as the budget and contracts. It also follows Gov. Rendell’s decision in the spring to put Ramirez’s re-nomination in limbo and open angling by Harrisburg legislators to get Republican representation on the SRC. One can only guess that Dr. Ramirez, whom Governor Rendell once praised as "the most qualified" member of the SRC for her education background, got no backing from state or city officials.

Which leads you to wonder: Was the Commission’s most vocal member – arguably its most expert and engaged member – forced out for asking too many questions and expecting a modicum of accountability from District leadership? If so, what does that mean for the future of our schools and $3 billion of public money. If asking questions isn’t the job of an oversight body, then what is?

Read the full story at the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

What's goin' on: Casinos, school violence and an update on the Luis Ramirez murder

A round-up of things in my neck o’ the woods:

  1. Foxwoods fiasco remains stalled: The bizarre Foxwoods fiasco remains stalled out, but that didn’t stop the casino from filing for a license extension last week. The petition reads like one long plaintive whine on why their gamble on a downtown casino hasn’t hit the jackpot yet. It also demonstrates how effective Councilman Frank "My Fighting Days are Over" DiCicco and Mayor "No Barriers to Casinos" Nutter were in stalling the project and potentially getting concessions from the casinos – something both have refused to do now that the project is off the waterfront.
  2. Petition to stop predatory gambling practices: Meanwhile, the No Casino in the Heart of Our City Coalition is pushing a petition for City Council which targets predatory gambling practices (sign here). The "No Blank Check For Casinos" Campaign argues that Council has a moral and civic duty to enact basic protections when a slots house is placed next to neighborhoods and homes – things like: making sure casinos close between 2-8 a.m.; prohibiting free unlimited alcohold service, and prohibiting ATM machines and lending on the casino floors. So far DiCicco has argued that such protections are outside his control.

    Ironically, in 2007, DiCicco made sure the City amended its otherwise strict limitations on payday lending to exempt casinos. Seems like it’s not impossible after all for Council to consider citizens’ needs as well as casino needs.

  3. Another out of touch Inky editorial: Over the weekend, the Inquirer published yet another awful editorial on the Philadelphia public schools. It was based on the annual report written by the District’s one-note Safe Schools Advocate, whose apparent sole contribution is an annual doomsday report on school violence. In its editorial "Rotten Apples," the Inquirer stated it’s time to "get rid of persistent troublemakers." Unfortunately, its tough on kids approach offered few options, and the Safe Schools Advocate, as expected, simply pounded on his one issue – noting the fact that schools don’t expel enough kids. That got me thinking about a recent Baltimore Sun story about Baltimore’s "go nuclear" approach: permanent expulsions under zero tolerance. With zero tolerance, there’s hardly any need for due process (parents have 10 days to appeal in writing) and the rotten apples are prohibited from attending any public, charter or disciplinary school, thereby placing the entire burden on the parents to either home-school or pay for private school.

What happened behind closed doors at the School District?

(Cross-posted at the Notebook's blog)

Anytime the School District has to summon a line-up of politicians to testify on its behalf, you know something’s up.

On Wednesday night, a group of political heavy-hitters opened the School Reform Commission meeting to urge the SRC to vote in favor of the District’s controversial strategic plan – Imagine 2014. Meanwhile CEO Arlene Ackerman issued dramatic statements that emphasized just how much pressure the District was exerting on the SRC for its vote:

"Tonight is the night that we demonstrate to [children] that we care . . . Tonight is the night the School Reform Commission acts on behalf of all of our children," Ackerman said during the meeting, which drew a capacity audience to the District's headquarters on Broad Street near Spring Garden.

And vote they did, 4-0 with hardly a question asked. Not one clarifying remark was made by a single commissioner to explain why each had voted on a plan that had generated lukewarm enthusiasm and enough controversy to result in last-minute plan adjustments, community meetings, a new budget, and political muscling.

Which makes one wonder: what happened behind closed doors to put the muzzle on the SRC?

School Chair Out? Politics All In for Philly Schools

In a shocking turn of events, both the Inquirer and the Daily News are reporting that School Reform Commission Chair Sandra Dungee Glenn may be off the SRC. Media reports say that she may be replaced by attorney Robert Archie.

A few weeks back, on the Public School Notebook’s blog, I wrote about the baffling secrecy and lack of transparency around choosing the members of the School Reform Commission, the city/state oversight body for the Philadelphia public schools.

In fact, a School Reform Commission appointment is probably one of the least transparent processes in the School District of Philadelphia. Decided upon in backdoor rooms, at the sole discretion of either the Governor or the Mayor, lacking any written set of responsibilities and expectations, and largely absent public standards for avoiding ethical and financial conflicts of interest, the Commission appointments have long baffled most parents and education observers.

Unfortunately, if true, the departure of Sandra Dungee Glenn won't do much to alleviate those concerns. Here are a couple of reasons why:

School privatization takes a hit

Yesterday the School Reform Commission terminated contracts for six education management organizations (EMOs), and put another 20 on one-year probation with plans to closely scrutinize how money is spent. The District formerly had 38 schools in a “multiple” provider model with for-profit companies, non-profits and universities in the mix.

Edison Schools, Inc., the largest provider with 20 schools, lost 25% (four) of its contracts, and saw another twelve put on probation. Temple University lost one contract at Dunbar Elementary; and Victory Schools lost its contract with the all-boys school Fitzsimons.

Interestingly (or predictably), local providers Foundations Inc. and Universal Companies lost no contracts, although Foundations saw three of four of its schools placed on probation. Universal has one of its two contracts also on probation.

Only 12 schools, less than a third of the EMOs, received a multiple year contract from the District.

Although at first glance, the effort is a modest one, it’s potentially a blow to the privatization movement nationally and marks a rethinking of the role of EMOs in Philadelphia under the administration of new CEO Arlene Ackerman. More important, it should highlight the work of grassroots parent and student groups, like the Philadelphia Student Union and Parents United for Public Education, who have kept this issue on the front burner as a question of quality school choice vs. multiple school choice.

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