School District

Council Can Give the SRC the Money to NOT Privatize the System

Helen and Dan have laid bare the SRC’s plan to kill public education and to use the Mayor’s AVI initiative to fund the murder to the tune of $94 million. I have nothing to add to their brilliant exposure of the crime scene. However I do want to point out that Council does not have to collaborate. In fact Council can help prevent the sell-off of the School District through a simple carrot and stick approach.

All it has to do is sequester the $94 million and hold it back until the community gets what it wants and deserves.

Here’s how Council can do that:

1) Amend the pending Operating Budget Bill to appropriate $94 million to the City’s Sinking Fund Commission, a traditional place for parking money intended to be used later for other purposes. Putting the $94 million there would mean the School District couldn’t get it until Council passed another ordinance approving its transfer later in the year.

2) Amend the Mayor’s AVI bill to shift the revenue targets so that the City is getting $94 million more (the money that would go to the Sinking Fund) and the School District $94 million less.

3) Work with labor and the community to come up with a plan that works to keep the School District public and thriving, and refuse to send the $94 million until the SRC goes along.

What if the SRC doesn’t meet our demands by the end of the next fiscal year and insists on going forward with its fun and games? Well, then the $94 million would merge back into the City’s General Fund to be allocated the following year either for other purposes or to enable tax rates to be reduced. Or it could be used next year to reduce the pain from the Governor's social services cuts.

That’s it. It’s not rocket science; it’s just about Council’s sincerity in opposing the privatization of the District. They can fight it if they want.

The BRT Test

Whatever you think about the importance of the Bureau of Revision of Taxes, there’s no question that what the city, and perhaps most importantly the Mayor, does with this mess of an agency is a test of leadership and vision that’s under the public – re: media – scrutiny.

The draft statements coming from the Mayor’s appointed task force aren’t entirely encouraging:

The 85-page report, by a task force of City Council staffers and officials in the Nutter administration, is not a ringing call to remake the BRT.

In fact, Council made sure that it wasn't. The leadership instructed the task force to offer no direct recommendation on how to fix the agency - only alternatives.

One of those possibilities - "Option A" - would make only modest changes, such as improved training for assessors.

Other options would leave the agency intact but allow the mayor and Council to pick the members; or split the BRT into two agencies, one to set values and the other to handle appeals.

"Option D" would wipe out the BRT and put assessments in the hands of city leaders or a new agency. The last three ideas would require approval by city voters, the task force noted.

Which means that significant action on the BRT won’t happen until the 2010 election cycle, way too far down the road.

Meanwhile, half the BRT workers sit on the School District of Philadelphia payroll. The District’s money for these positions runs out at the end of this month, and the question is what to do next.

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's the right to speak without the right to be listened to?

When the district announced that they would be creating a 5 year strategic plan, they promised that it would be an open, transparent, and community-based process. I believed them at first. I even joined one of the strategic plan working groups- "Highly Effective Educators". I gave input, excited that the district was finally actively seeking out community input. After that process, which I felt really good about since we had come up with what I thought was an awesome and reasonable list of recommendations with clearly defined priorities, the district sent two people to meet with an organization that I'm a part of- The Philadelphia Student Union. My colleagues (other high school students) and I gave more input here. At this point I really was convinced that this administration was different, that the horror stories I had heard about life under Vallas and the horror stories I had been a part of under Brady were over. I knew Dr. Ackerman wasn't perfect but maybe she really was sincere about community involvement. And then the draft of the plan came out. Almost nothing from the Highly Effective Educators working group was a part of it. We had identified teacher equity and site selection as our top priorities, and neither was included. Nothing from the district's session with PSU was in the draft either. I was disappointed, but I thought that maybe the word "draft" would open opportunities for real engagement. I went to community meetings at schools, my working group reconvened, I was a part of another listening session as a member of City Wide Student Government. I got "engaged" every way I knew how. And that was just me. Student Union as an organization and other students as individuals spent countless hours trying to talk with the district. Our questions were ignored, marginalized and side-stepped. Our suggestions were faithfully written down and then ignored. When the revised draft came out (partly as a result of pressure exerted by PSU and other organizing groups) I wasn't surprised to see that again, none of the suggestions I had given or had heard given in any meeting I had been in were incorporated. In the end, Student Union and our allies did manage to get some of our issues addressed in the final version of the plan, although key language around the Renaissance schools and around teacher equity is still lacking. It was a bizarre experience, hearing Ackerman proclaim constantly that the plan was "all for the children", but then marginalize "the children" when we came to her door asking to be heard.

This is a long story to make a simple point: the right to speak doesn't amount to anything without the right to be listened to. We consistently demand "community processes" only to be given instead informational meetings and lip service. Since the various institutions in the city: school district, city government, etc. don't seem to understand what exactly a real community process looks like, maybe we need to be more explicit with them from now on about what exactly we are looking for. Simply put, we're looking for genuine dialogue. The only way to be sure that we have been listened to before we see the final result is to demand that we have a real conversation. Why aren't we able to give suggestions and then demand an answer as to why they weren't included? Maybe then some of the real motives behind including some ideas and not others would have to come out.

The district has another crucial "community engagement" process coming up with the Renaissance Schools, and this time we have to hold them accountable not just for "engaging" the community, but for respecting us as decision makers.

Tax abatements and school district finances

This post has been edited to correct misinformation from its original posting. Apologies. HG

The Inquirer has an interesting in-depth analysis of the city’s tax abatement program. The story is one of the most extensive looks at a program that has changed the face of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the story leaves the consequences for Philadelphia schools as somewhat of an afterthought.

Although the city has arguably reaped benefits from tax abatements (wage/sales taxes, development, residential sales, etc.), the school district has suffered immeasurably from the program with little recompense from the city. In its newspaper version, the Inky published a chart of the tax impact on the city and schools. I inquired about the specific numbers on the chart, and then did a 60% calculation of the amount that would have transferred to the schools.

Here's what the cost of abatements will be for the schools:

  • since 2008: City = $84,727,393 in total lost revenue
    Schools = $50,836,436 forfeited
  • by 2012: City = $181,406,923 in total lost revenue
    Schools = $108,844,154 forfeited
  • by 2016 (peak loss): City = $239,932,516 in total lost revenue
    Schools = $143,959,509 forfeited

Between 2016 and 2025, the total amount lost for schools declines. The District will begin to see profits from the program in 2025 when we get the first check for $1.6 million . . . after 26 years. By 2025, all three of my children will have graduated from high school – a generation, in my opinion, robbed.

YPP blogger featured on "It's Our Money" podcast

We recored the first It's Our Money podcast and it is now posted on our site. I thought YPP readers might be interested because it features Helen Gym, a frequent commenter on YPP. Helen is joined by Wayne Harris, who is the budget director for the School District of Philadelphia.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking here. You can also subscribe to the feed through iTunes or any other podcasting software.

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.

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.

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