HelenGym's blog

Miles Mack: A local hero falls

I didn’t know Miles Mack but I wish I did:

Mack - named by his mother after the jazz great Miles Davis - founded his beloved X-Tra Miles Developmental Basketball League to "keep kids straight," said Zellars, a general contractor.

"He loved the kids in the community," said Mack's mother, Sandra, 63.

"He always wanted [to help] the tough kids, the hard-headed kids," said Murphy Appin, 44, who worked with Mack on the league. "He could get in anybody's heart. That was his thing, to get the tough kids."

A quote from Mack on the X-Tra Web site reads, "I just want to know where the babies are."
That abiding concern for children in West Philadelphia was Mack's passion and legacy, friends and family said.

"He was genuine, and always all about the kids," said Kendall Edwards, 42, Mack's cousin. "And kids always followed him, no matter what."

His natural charisma was evident at a young age.

When Mack was a teenager, he was known as the peacemaker in the neighborhood.

"If a fight broke out," Zellars said, "he would tell the guys, 'We're friends. We don't fight.' "

Even older kids listened to Mack, who had a calming way about him. "He would never get angry, never get upset," Zellars said. "He really knew how to talk to people."

Even with all the sleazy political news, the city’s deficit, and (for me, at least) the wheeling and dealing around a Chinatown Gallery casino, this tragic and shocking murder had me grieving for the loss of a true local hero and the diminished humanity in our city.

At the same time, I had to struggle with the police commissioner’s contemptuous accusations of that this is a community ruled by a “no snitch” culture. Although I don’t deny that some people abide by such a code, clearly most don’t. It’s not that there’s a “no snitch” code in place, it’s that in some of the most neglected parts of our city, living as if government and the rule of law run the corners is a luxury. Most children and families know that justice is meted out in vastly different ways depending on where we live.

At the end of the day, I can’t help but think of all those young people who witnessed this brutal killing, of the happiness and pride of that day shattered, and then for all that to be accompanied by the larger public and media to turn on them for not snitching, for not understanding the fear and helplessness, and for the constant contempt and neglect heaped upon our neediest neighbors.

I don’t have solutions obviously; I just know that a brutal gun culture, with an enabling legislature, and a city’s constant chasing of ridiculous rainbow dreams of revival (like casinos) while our neighborhoods fall apart and people languish in poverty – is something that kills a part of all of us everyday.

Foxwoods @ the Gallery: the process still stinks

This weekend marks one of Asia’s most significant holidays – the Harvest Moon – as well as Asian Americans United 13th Annual Mid-Autumn Festival, an event AAU founded to celebrate the cultural survival and community power of Philadelphia Chinatown, one of the city’s oldest immigrant neighborhoods.

Eight years ago, Mid-Autumn Festival was marked by the thousands of people who used this cherished gathering to declare their defiance of a new mayor’s proposal to establish a baseball stadium on Chinatown’s borders. At the time, it was considered a “done deal” and few expected resistance from a largely non-English speaking community with one of the poorest zip codes (at the time) in the city. No effort was made by the city to communicate with the residents of the neighborhood or to engage with the community’s plans for affordable housing, schools, parks, and gardens.

Chinatown had to fight tooth and nail to establish itself as a neighborhood with real needs and a vision for itself. Among the many arguments used against us was that Chinatown had no alternatives for the land north of Vine Street. But eight years is telling. Eight years later, Chinatown North (as it is dubbed) is a far different vision for a city’s development than the one nearly forced upon this community.

Cross Vine Street and walk the footprint of what would have been the stadium. You’ll find:

  • a new annex for Chinese Christian Church, to house their growing congregation;
  • the building headquarters of the Greater Philadelphia Fujianese Association, one of the fastest growing ethnicities in Philadelphia, whose business and community leadership has changed the face of the community;
  • Khmer Art Gallery, which celebrates the culture and arts of Cambodia, and Liao Collection, a gallery and store of Asian arts and antiques, whose owners relocated to this location after being active participants in the battle against the proposed baseball stadium; and
  • Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, an arts-based elementary charter school serving 400-some students founded by Asian Americans United and the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

Contrast this with a stadium that would have stayed empty two-thirds of the year, and offered this community little of the kind of “progress” it desired. Is it any wonder that this community fought a baseball stadium with every bit of its breath?

So why would city and state officials think that a casino would be any less repellant? The expected announcement today of the Foxwoods casino re-site to the Gallery is shocking on a number of levels.

First, since it’s apparently been forgotten: Chinatown is a NEIGHBORHOOD. Almost a quarter of its residents are children. We have homes, places of worship, cultural centers, and schools. A casino has no business in or around residential neighborhoods

Second, given the stadium history, it’s shocking that city and state officials would repeat past mistakes and make an announcement without any communication with neighborhood residents. The broader Chinatown community was neither consulted with or even informed of this announcement. We applaud the move to re-site the casinos – done largely in recognition of the flawed process and community activism that sunk the waterfront sites. But it is ironic/disrespectful/outrageous to ignore these past lessons and simply re-site to a different neighborhood with the same lack of process and communication.

Third, the Gallery location reportedly may come with perks for Foxwoods – including potential input on the development of the Market East corridor, a trouble-free approval process, tax breaks or compensation to abandon the waterfront sites, and legal immunity. None of these are priorities or an appropriate use of public process or dollars in difficult economic times.

And finally, we deserve a city that sets its development priorities based on a public planning process guided by unifying principles for what a city and its people need. It doesn’t need politically-connected operators to dictate how and when a city develops and uses its precious resources and money.

Obviously we need a lot more information to know where this is going. But right now, unless we hear differently, we’re ready for a fight.

Back to School

Today, 200,000 children carrying Philadelphia’s future with them head back to school. Last night, my children were full of anticipation (if not necessarily excitement) as they packed up their supplies, talked about friends, and wondered what to expect from their teachers. For them, the night before school is always full of hope.

Conventional wisdom has it that this is the year of opportunity.

We have a Mayor who has put education as his top priority, a governor and legislature that delivered on hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding (though it backed off a new funding formula), and a city council that kicked it all off by throwing in more than $20+ million annually through a transfer of real estate tax revenue. We’ve got a former state budget secretary as our CFO, and an SRC, state and city leadership that’s politically aligned for the first time since the state takeover. We’ve got a new CEO who’s trying to refashion the role back into “superintendent” and has the vetting of the Governor and Mayor.

What this can’t be is a year for folks to say, “Hey look at how much we gave the schools” and walk away. After all, look what happened to the hundreds of millions Vallas and the SRC got at the beginning of the state takeover.

This also can’t be a time for extended media honeymoons with a new CEO or reading in the papers endless reports and announcements made by various talking heads. As Amy Goodman said, the media wasn’t created to be a megaphone for people in power. In the past few years, we’ve shown what happens when we demand responsible and relentless scrutiny of the District’s budget and build public outcry around our schools. A lot of that has come from community groups and independent media like the Public School Notebook; until recently, not enough from our mainstream papers. A few notable exceptions last spring has led however to a rather dull summer of reading.

Blood on our hands: An immigrant's murder and Pennsylvania's hate

On July 12th, Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant, was beaten to death by a group of teenagers in Shenandoah, PA.

A few of the details that finally ran in Friday’s paper:

According to a police affidavit, the defendants and three 17-year-olds encountered Ramirez, 25, and a teenage girl in a park the night of July 12.

The youths goaded Ramirez and the girl, saying, "You should get out of this neighborhood" and "Get your Mexican boyfriend out of here," documents said. After Ramirez and the girl began walking away, someone yelled an ethnic slur at him, court documents said. He responded, "What's your problem?"

A fight ensued, during which police said Walsh punched Ramirez in the face. The victim fell and hit his head on the street, leaving him unconscious, after which Piekarsky kicked him in the head, police said.

All three suspects used ethnic slurs during the fight, which ended with Ramirez in convulsions and foaming at the mouth, authorities said. The attackers fled the scene; Ramirez underwent surgery but died July 14 of head injuries.

It’s important to note that this story didn’t hit the Inky until more than two weeks after the incident. In fact, only after Amy Goodman reported on Democracy Now two days ago that police had still failed to charge Luis Ramirez’s killers – despite having an eyewitness to the murder – did police bother to press charges a day later and the story began taking off (one more reason for independent media).

Goodman’s interview with the eyewitness, Arielle Garcia, was chilling not just in Garcia's telling of the night of the murder, but in expressing the general tenor of what it means to be a Mexican immigrant in certain parts of Pennsylvania these days.

AMY GOODMAN: So they were shouting racial epithets. They were—what is the atmosphere in Shenandoah? What is the attitude to Mexican immigrants?

ARIELLE GARCIA: I think it’s—most of the time, it’s OK. But there are times when there are racial slurs. I mean, with my husband, I’ve been with him four years, and like, I’m telling you, there are many times that I’ve heard people scream racial slurs to him. You know, like I was pregnant with my son, and they told me, “What’s that in your belly? Another person I’m going to have to pay for? Another Mexican on welfare?” Like stuff like that. It’s disgusting.

SEPTA and kids: "Not our issue"

Parents United for Public Education has been working for months to stop a District proposal to cut thousands of students off from free transpasses as part of a deficit-reduction plan.

Last fall, Gov. Rendell, Sen. Vince Fumo and SEPTA officials held a big press conference announcing that, for the first time, students in Philadelphia would get what students across the state already receive – free transportation for grades 7-12. For all students living more than 1.5 miles from school, the state and SEPTA would fund free transpasses. This applied to all parochial and charter students as well as public.

Unfortunately, after the media headlines the cost issue was a lot different. Because of the expansion of passes, the District’s transportation costs tripled to over $30 million. But the state refused to reimburse about $7 million in the District’s transportation costs, partly because they are reneging on the 1.5 mile requirement. State minimums are supposed to be two miles or more. So now the District is weighing how to save about $4.2 million by either instituting an 85% attendance requirement on transpasses (an issue that would impact only Philadelphia public school students, not parochial or charter) or extending the mileage requirement from 1.5 miles to 2 miles. Either way thousands of students lose.

The good news is that parents have gotten the attention of city and some state officials, but apparently not SEPTA. From today’s Inky :

Not so fast, said SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey. The agency already gives the district a discount for TransPasses, and it has agreed to pay the district $3.5 million for administering the program, per a deal cut with the state last year.

"If they have an issue with the amount of money or the distance, it's really between them and the Department of Education," Casey said. "They can go anywhere they want to, to try to get the money, but it's not our issue."

City Advocate Lance Haver pointed out to me that 80% of SEPTA’s local match is funded by city taxpayer dollars, and that SEPTA is sitting on a $130 million rainy day fund.

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.

Why It Matters: property taxes and school funding

Sunday’s Inquirer laid out one of the best reasons for why reform in property taxes has to go hand in hand with school funding.

In a study of more than 500,000 tax records, the Inquirer reports that “wildly disparate property tax rates are widening the economic divide between have and have not towns.”

Consider this:

For instance, in some economically distressed parts of eastern Delaware County, such as the six towns of the William Penn School District, the tax rates are nearly six times higher than those in West Conshohocken, a Montgomery County borough jam-packed with office towers. Just five years ago, the rates were 31/2 times higher.

Those poorer communities also tend to have lower-achieving students and far fewer resources than wealthy neighbors. The William Penn district - composed of Aldan, Colwyn, Darby Borough, East Lansdowne, Lansdowne and Yeadon - spends $12,701 per pupil. West Conshohocken is in the Upper Merion district, which spends $18,158.

Between 2002 and 2007 in poorer towns in the suburban counties, increases in millages - the taxes per $1,000 of assessed property value - were double those in affluent communities.

So the famous line touted by Philadelphia Student Union organizers in 2001 during the state takeover was that the quality of a child’s school system shouldn’t have to depend on their zip code. But that is indeed what happens here.

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.

School watch: District offers "choice" not money for failing schools

In yesterday's Daily News, the School Reform Commission reported that it would not approve new charter applications, but instead intended to ask charter applicants to take on the city's 70 failing schools listed as being in corrective action 2 status. These include most of the comprehensive high schools as well as dozens of schools throughout the city.

In addition, the School District has said it will open up all the 70 schools to Education Management Organizations (EMOs). Edison Schools Inc. has already said it intends to apply to all 70 schools.

What's wrong with this picture?

Parking Authority seeks towing expansion – What do we get?

Tomorrow a small bill, that slipped out of Council’s Streets and Services committee with barely any notice, will get its first reading. Titled “Towing And Immobilizing Of Parked Or Abandoned Vehicles,” few knew what Bill 080406 was about until the people benefiting showed up to testify on its behalf:

From KYW1060:

The Parking Authority is promising smoother rush hours in Center City, if it gets final City Council approval to expand its towing operation.

The Authority currently can tow and impound a car only in an area that is bounded by Vine Street on the north and Spruce Street on the south. A council committee has now given a preliminary okay to expanding that border north to Spring Garden, south to Bainbridge, and also on Broad Street itself all the way up to Hunting Park Avenue.

Parking Authority Executive Director Vince Fennerty says to goal is to get illegally parked cars out of the way in rush hour . . . .

Fennerty says this will particularly help around the I-95 Vine Street ramps.

The Parking Authority?

This is the first time (that I’m aware of) that Council has had a crack at the Parking Authority since parents launched a campaign against them last fall. Now is not the time to expand the Parking Authority’s powers. If anything, City Council should restrict the PPA’s activities until it first proves it is a more responsible steward of its money and activities. It’s also an important opportunity to squeeze that agency about why it isn’t giving more to the schools.

Schools Round-Up: School safety, graduation tests, and a few more out-of touch Inky editorials

A lot of school news in the past few weeks to share:

School Safety
The District’s Safe Schools Advocate has been in the news slamming the District regarding its failures on ensuring safety – or should I say, some strange interpretation of it, since apparently he defines it as the number of students expelled from schools and closing “loopholes” like an appeal process, according to a yet unpublished report.

What he gets right: the climate is declining in schools, and options for getting troubled students help in time is as impossible as ever. Teachers, who have seen the loss of aides, NTAs vice principals, school-home liaisons and a burgeoning class size, ARE dealing with far more abuse with far fewer resources.

What he misses the boat on: his recommendations – expelling kids automatically, closing appeals processes, increasing the number of disciplinary school replacements and hiring a “discipline czar”? Anyone who argues that the solution to complicated issues of violence and climate is throwing out thousands of students onto the streets and closing appeals processes is not only short-sighted but irresponsible.

Council hearings on the School District: What we might expect

Today, City Council is expected to hear testimony from the School District of Philadelphia, which controls $2.3 billion of public money for the public schools, almost 40% of which ($889 million) is financed by the City.

When legislative costing out study pegs the underfunding of Philadelphia schools at a billion dollars a year, it’s not surprising to see a grim outlook for school finances. A state-sponsored “multiple provider model” (including charters, alternative education schools, and privatized schools run by Education Management Organizations and non-profits) has dramatically increased the burden on schools, particularly around management fees, gaps in charter reimbursements, and a transportation policy that forces the School District to assume all bussing and transpass payments for private and parochial schools as well as public schools.

The hardest thing to understand about the public schools and why $2.3 billion isn’t enough, is the size of the District:
• 281 different schools
• 167,000+ students – the next largest district, Pittsburgh, has less than 30,000 students
• 62 high schools
• 61 charter schools, the second largest “district” in the state
• 25,000 employees – 10,000 of whom are teachers
• 35,000 kids in K-6 on buses, and 55,000 kids in grades 7-12 using transpasses
• 86,000 free lunches served daily
• 70+ languages spoken in the District
• Average age of buildings – 70 years old

And the District continues to grow in expenses. The District’s Five Year Plan projects growth in expenses at $700 million, almost 30%. The problem is that enrollment is expected to “decline” by 10,000 some students over the next five years as well. In this situation, the District is contemplating difficult decisions around closing and consolidations of schools (four are underway in West Philadelphia alone), reduced services, across the board pay freezes, and other options.

Note to McCaffery: You're a Justice now

Because, according to today’s story story, it seems as though Seamus McCaffery forgot:

Last week, he made a point of his police background during an oral argument in a death-penalty case - and his remarks have become a hot topic among judges and lawyers who handle criminal cases, with some expecting defense attorneys to challenge McCaffery's ability to be fair to death-row inmates.

The case focused on the novel question of whether defendant Thavirak Sam, who was sentenced to death in 1991, can be forcibly medicated so his appeal can proceed.

The question is important because Sam, who suffers from mental illness, can't be executed because he has been ruled mentally incompetent. If he is forcibly medicated with antipsychotic drugs, Sam might become competent, and that could set the stage for his execution.

As defense lawyer Jules Epstein made his case that it would be unconstitutional to forcibly medicate Sam, McCaffery leaned forward and told the packed courtroom that he could restrain himself no longer.

The justice said he felt compelled to point out that Sam's relatives had been waiting years for justice.

Referring to his years on the police force, McCaffery said, "I was the one who picked up the bodies" and notified family members about such deaths. "How about finality for these family members?" he asked.

In addition to interjecting overly personal statements about “picking up bodies” McCaffery said he couldn’t help himself.

Well, he needs to. He’s not on the court to be a knee-jerk reactionary to any murder situation he sees. This is a question of forced medication of a mentally ill man. His job is to listen to the arguments and consider them in light of constitutional rights of all parties.

If he can't help himself, then he needs to recuse himself from this and all other death penalty cases.

School CEO's $20,000 a day panel

From today's Inky:

New School CEO Arlene Ackerman kicks off her first day with her 20-member blue ribbon panel, whose main job will be "to listen to parents, teachers and other district participants."

The transition-team effort will cost $75,000 to $100,000, which was negotiated when she was hired, Ackerman said. Each panel member will be offered a $1,000-a-day honorarium for the work, which is likely to span four days, she said.

As a parent I am flattered to be valued at so much, $20,000 a day? Usually I'm happy to give my thoughts for free.

To put $20,000 in perspective, a parent who testified at the District's budget hearing noted that her school was trying to choose whether to buy a librarian or a special ed teacher for $18,000 -- that would be less than one day of this panel to serve 250 kids for a year.

Another panel project will be to evaluate outside District managers. This despite the fact that we have had four independent studies evaluate EMOs in the District and all of them consistently report that they do not academically outperform the average District managed school despite collecting more than $110 million in management fees. The panel is chaired by a representative from one EMO, Dr. Kent McGuire of Temple University, and counts Leroy Nunnery, former Edison Schools president, as a member. Both these men were also finalists for the CEO position at the School District. It also includes the director of Harvard's Urban Superintendent's Program, which Ackerman attended, and an executive with the Broad Foundation, where she consults.

Time to wake up on the School District budget

Amid all the post-election analysis, here’s a pitch about tonight’s budget hearing at the School District of Philadelphia.

Syndicate content