School District can't afford to leave democracy behind

(This post has been updated to remain consistent with my posting at the Notebook.)

Yesterday’s move by the School Reform Commission to hire a Chief Recovery Officer who will be advised by an "outside team of experts" signals a potentially troubling path around both mission and process for the School District as it struggles to keep afloat amid fiscal chaos.

Local 1201 union president George Richezza, whose 2700 members have all received layoff notices, said what’s on many people’s minds: “What I see here is a dismantling of the public school system."

To be sure, no one can deny the District’s devastating financial situation. A $715 million deficit. $61 million to close by June. A projected $300+ million deficit to close in FY2013.

On top of all that was yesterday’s very important story that the city and school district had lost a state court appeal around property taxes that could result in $45 million less in tax revenue for the schools.

The current leadership of the SRC needs to take swift fiscal action. No one denies that. The fact that schools, school personnel, and classrooms have made and will need to continue to make compromises is also a given.

But here’s where the SRC leadership needs to act with caution. In announcing a leadership shake-up and hiring former Philadelphia Gas Works Chief Thomas Knudsen in the same night, the SRC enacted what’s called a “walk-on resolution” – a move that is generally shunned by public boards committed to transparency and dialogue. Knudsen assumes both a superintendent and chief financial officer’s role – an unprecedented role without clear limits on his scope of powers. Knudsen made no formal statement at the SRC meeting last night though he was present, a decision that did not improve public trust or understanding of his role and mission.

Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham tweeted last night that Knudsen would be advised by “outside experts with experience in turnaround.” The RFQ for this team includes broad powers like development of a five-year financial plan, a dramatic restructuring of the District by FY2013, provision of senior level personnel, and monetization of assets - despite the fact that Knudsen will only serve for six months.

The SRC should note that the rhetoric around “recovery” has loaded meaning in education circles all too familiar with districts like New Orleans and Detroit whose emergency managers have truly dismantled public education. Neighboring Chester-Upland’s long and slow collapse under a state takeover also weighs heavily on the minds of everyone concerned about public education.

The SRC needs to couple its urgency to act with a public approach of deep humility and sorrow for the lack of action that got us to this place. Instead, Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky said, without a hint of irony, that “circumstances require us to live in a very different world.” It was as if Dworetzky, who sat on the last SRC, was completely oblivious to his own role in allowing the District to get itself into this awful mess.

It's equally baffling to observers why former CFO Michael Masch, who did much to obfuscate the District's financial straits in the previous administration, remains on as financial advisor; or former interim CEO Leroy Nunery remains as an advisor as well. If we're threatening the jobs of maintenance and cafeteria workers due to the failures of leadership, it's hard to understand why the very leaders responsible stay while so many others lose their jobs.

In the aftermath of the 2007 fiscal crisis, the School Reform Commission curtailed then-CEO Paul Vallas’ powers and turned financial control over to Chief Financial Officer James Doosey, who served throughout interim CEO Thomas Brady's tenure. Doosey presented the SRC with options and consequences that were publicly debated and discussed.

Knudsen, because he is acting as both chief financial officer and superintendent, appears to have far fewer checks and balances against his powers despite his lack of familiarity with a fragile school district.

On another front, it was disappointing that amid the sudden announcement of fiscal crisis that two entities which have recently been loudly opinionated around schools chose to remain silent – the city and the state. Both could and should have made clear what financial efforts they will make to reassure the students, families and staff of the district.

I’m not out to nitpick with a new SRC leadership that deserves a chance to set itself apart. But bold action needs to go hand in hand with public dialogue and process before the SRC acts; otherwise it risks being perceived as alienated from and alienating to the public.

Before the SRC took its actions last week, there should have been at least a few meetings about the District's financial state, explanation of the constant shifting of numbers and financial distress, and a broad discussion of what the SRC thinks various sectors need to contribute. That includes key funding entities like the city and state, the business community, charters and the nonprofit sector - not just how local schools, unions, and 440 must cannibalize themselves.

There should have been significant discussion of the need for a Chief Recovery Officer, its role and limitations and who the CRO is accountable to and for. There should have been dialogue about Knudsen, his background, intent and focus over the next six months.

The fiscal crisis is real. So is the danger of dismantling a fragile public school system whether anyone says they intend to or not.

Making room for public debate and discussion as we embark on uncharted territory does not mean delaying or dallying. It's about recognizing that we're in unfamiliar seas and we need advice and feedback as we test different solutions. It's recognizing that de rigeur solutions like hacking personnel, salaries, and benefits translate into dire consequences when we talk about school safety, teacher efficacy, and improving the college graduation rate. And it’s about valuing public trust and dialogue by an entity, the SRC, which many feel has allowed crises to justify trampling on those very values.

Thanks, Helen

Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham tweeted last night that Knudsen would be advised by “outside experts with experience in turnaround” – another mysterious allusion that has the potential to alarm the public.

Someone like Mitt?

Maybe you don't know much about Knudsen's background or maybe you'd rather not weigh in, but do you have any links?

Knudsen profile

Inquirer is supposed to publish a profile tomorrow. I'll link to it. In the meantime, here's some background from the Notebook.

When is the business "community" going to pay us back?

I agree wholeheartedly with everything that you say, Helen, except for the notion of a business "community". In the sense that these corporate "persons" are interested in helping themselves as a group of "folks" who share self interests, they are indeed a community. But as it relates to the rest of us, that community acts as a predator. It is interested in picking up the skin and bones of what it leaves of the School District, and appropriating it to itself for whatever profit-making uses it can make of it. This community is busy in Harrisburg doing everything it can to knock down corporate taxes and cut state revenue, and, as you point out, is doing everything it can to essentially accomplish the same thing here by going after real estate tax assessments. It has shown itself nationwide, and right here in Philly, to be the mortal enemy of all real people who are not the 1%.

This crisis was made by the business "community". It has bonded with a Republican Party that cares about nothing except preserving the privileges of the 1%, no matter the consequences to anyone else. The financial sector of the business community all by itself has come close to destroying the entire public sector by selling financial instruments to it that were doomed to fail, by crashing the economy through the wide dissemination of those instruments, by then getting bailed out when they themselves were harmed, and by now insisting that they should bear even fewer obligations (financial and otherwise) toward the public than they bore before the meltdown. We already know what they want for the School District. It is everything that Governor Corbett wants, which, essentially means no public schools. Period.

We have one tool against these predators and we should use it; raise their taxes sharply (preferably the Gross Receipts Tax) and send the proceeds to the District. Yes, the Republican leader of the Chamber of Commerce will claim that will harm business. But how much more friendliness to business can we afford when they are ripping us apart? How much more trickle-down blackmail can we take from them? We know what's happening now with not enough revenue for the schools. How can we not do whatever it takes to get more in a way that doesn't impose the burden of taxes on overwhelmed workers, homeowners and tenants? To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, yes, increasing business taxes may hurt us in the long run, but in the long run -- unless we do something now -- the School District, and maybe City government altogether, will be dead.

Same old tune

Before the birth of my son, the only connections I had with the SDP were that I'm an alum and that it was the missing part of a livable community. The last 3 years must have been a nightmare for the parents, teachers and other employees of the SDP.

Now, with a child, it's unbearable to watch. I can say this: on the current state of things, the public school options in my community are not acceptable (K-4) to me. What is also not acceptable to me is the notion of paying more for it without a significant reatructuring of principles, people and places. No, I'm not willing to pay for more of the same. If I were an employer, I would demand more. We all should demand more.

Helen's note above is spot on in many ways. But maybe it's time to look at this from the standpoint of how do we build an education system for our city the way it looks today - not to continue to propagate a model that is outdated.

What do you think is outdated about it?

I can think of lots of things that are wrong with the District. But I don't know what you mean when you say it follows a model that is "outdated."

Public schools do work if you refrain from bleeding them

Read this.

Less students, less schools.

Less students, less schools. Less schools, more money per school. I guess I would consider that the number of district students (excluding charter students) is lower than it was 25 years ago. I don't think the efforts to downsize facilities or their numbers has kept up. That would be my first thought.

I'm not an educator, but I'm now a parent. There are 2 elementary schools within walking distance from me. One is not full, the other is in poor physical condition and, frankly, would not be a place my kid would go to school. Seems awfully inefficient.

That Comment is a Far Cry from "the model is outdated"

I can't say that I've crunched the numbers that would be relevant to your comment. They might well show that you're right, although there are other factors involved, such as neighborhood integrity, walking distances, and the like. But questioning the number of schools in the District is a far cry from saying the "model" is outdated. Still don't know what you mean by that. If you just mean that the School District should be run more efficiently, I don't know anyone who would disagree with that.

It's a numbers game

The school district has less students because so many are enrolled in charter schools. The total number of children attending school in Philadelphia supported by taxpayer dollars is largely unchanged from what it was 10 years ago.
Now some may say charter schools are a great way to improve education and save money. That is simply naive based on the fraud which has been so evident here. It actually will expand government costs as more bureaucracy is required to maintain oversight. And lets not forget the costs involved in prosecuting all this fraud. Sure these costs show up in the judicial budget not the education budget. Just another example of how the naive are fooled by the charter school movement.
Fixing this school district is really simple. What's hard is placing people who believe in public education into positions of responsibility. For 12 years the state has been trying to hand off the School District of Philadelphia to people like Leroy Nunnery who worked for Edison Schools: Remember them? You cannot both support public education and dismantle it at the same time. That is what has been happening here in Philadelphia for the past 12 years. In 2014 we need to make this a statewide issue and take our schools back.

I completely agree, these

I completely agree, these cuts will only make things worse and we don't want this to happen to our education system. Things have gone too far, teachers are getting layoff notices, less students afford higher education. Education shouldn't depend so much about the money. My brother is working hard to get his online masters degree in social work, he still has one more year to complete. So many high school graduates can't even afford that. Things have gone too far.

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