An $8 million District slush fund is why we need more than political theater

Ackerman Remarks About 'Job For Life':

It’s business as usual at the School Reform Commission. $629 million budget deficit? Pshaw. Public officials demanding oversight? Meh.

All you have to do is look at the resolutions on the docket for Monday’s vote. Let’s start with SRC-16, a resolution that sets aside a whopping $8 million for what the administration calls “limited contracting authority” (LCA). District officials defined it as contracts under $15,000 that would not require SRC review. The reasoning presented was that the SRC had so many resolutions to look at already, it shouldn’t be bothered with contracts of such a low amount.

Hold on a second right there.

It’s pretty stunning to me that the District continues unchallenged with this type of behavior and rhetoric. No one wants to micromanage, but $8 million is an amount equal to the base salaries of more than 100 teachers. In a week where thousands of District employees lost their jobs, it's hard to imagine the District would have the decency to ask for an unscrutinized $8 million set aside at this time.

One would think that the crippling deficit, a federal IRS investigation and outcries from city and state officials about the District’s poor financial management would put a stop to such shenanigans. But apparently not.

Which brings me to my next point: What exactly is the purpose of the political theater surrounding a memorandum of understanding if stuff like this continues to happen at the District? Elected officials are fond of trotting out words like accountability and oversight, especially in the midst of the national spotlight and around budget season. What they forget is that these words require work and the practice of saying NO.

Consider the resolutions up for vote on Monday:

  • $150,000 for the Superintendent’s 2011 Summer Leadership Institute, essentially a few days of school funded networking. Me? I’d rather have two teachers working next year.
  • $2 million to retain outside counsel, on top of a 38-member, $7.5 million legal office that expanded by $1 million this year.
  • $3.7 million to Communities in Schools to implement a fatherhood initiative. I love this idea, but is this the time to be setting up new programs that may or may not be sustainable?
  • $1.4 million for lease renewals and amendments to educational programs, $157.6 million for “contracts for services” at various schools and locations, and another $10 million for “contracts for materials” at various schools and locations. Have these contracts been thoroughly reviewed as essential priorities?
  • One resolution, A-48, doesn’t even list an amount for approved real estate brokerage services.
  • Leadership training? $805,000 to the University of Pennsylvania Center for Educational Leadership; $94,000 to the Enterprise Center; and $75,000 to the Princeton Center

In the Fall of 2006, when then-CEO Paul Vallas revealed a shocking $73 million deficit, the SRC immediately moved into action. They publicly excoriated Vallas for his financial management, fired the CFO at the time, hired Public Financial Management to begin instituting controls, and dramatically put on hold spending. Classrooms suffered cuts but the SRC was able to largely address the deficit through immediate reduced spending. In return, parents like Parents United for Public Education along with others fought for a shift in the millage rate and a campaign around Parking Authority funds both of which bring in close to $28 million annually. It’s simply baffling that this administration has willfully refused to follow such a commonsense approach.

What's incredibly frustrating is that our schools need and deserve more money from the city and the state. And as shocked as people may be by the $75-110 million pricetag put out by the Mayor, believe me that the costs of the failure by city and state officials to oversee the past three years of financial chaos at the District will cost us far more - not next year but many years down the road. It isn't right to put out the message that we can do this painlessly either. It will be painful. It will result in higher taxes and possibly lost services.

So as a parent with children in this system, it's beyond frustrating to see so much rhetoric, so many political agendas, and not just clear action. Action that breaks rank with the current administration that has completely lost credibility. Action that institutes professional financial oversight through an entity like PICA, rather than through political bodies like Council and the Mayor's office whose attention spans wax and wane with whatever makes the news for the day. Action that demands the SRC rebuke resolutions like those above. Action that can justify more funds to our classrooms which need it - not to the District which has failed them.

This week more than 3,000 people received notice that they had lost their jobs. According to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, there will be 619 less elementary school teachers in our school next year. There will be 115 less English teachers, 121 less math teachers, and 66 less social studies teachers. Our high schools lost 22 biology teachers, 17 chemistry teachers, 3 physics teachers and 6 general science teachers. We lost 50 art teachers, 8 music teachers, 31 ESL teachers and 323 special ed teachers.

At the same time, Fox29 caught Supt. Arlene Ackerman joking before the SRC meeting about getting her "job for life" back, and sourly dismissing the idea of making a public statement the day after people lost their jobs. Tell them we're short on time, Ackerman ordered SRC Chair Robert Archie to repeat.

We are out of time.

The FY2012 budget does not represent the interests of children, classrooms or the state of education in Philadelphia. A moratorium must be issued on all contracts, and we need people to hold to task the broader elected leadership that tolerates a District acting with impunity despite all they’ve done wrong.

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