Parents United Makes Strike for Good Government

Helen Gym and Parents United for Public Education make a successful strike for good government:

The head of the state board that runs Philadelphia schools said yesterday that it's time to end the school-funded system of patronage jobs at the city Board of Revision of Taxes.

Robert L. Archie Jr., chairman of the School Reform Commission, said he would support moving 80 BRT positions off the school payroll, where they have been stashed for decades to avoid a City Charter provision that bans city employees from engaging in political activity.

Because school employees are not subject to the ban, the city's Democratic and Republican bosses have been free to fill the jobs with party workers and other loyalists.

"This is not an efficient arrangement," Archie said, responding by e-mail to questions from The Inquirer about the long-standing arrangement.

If the schools must continue to help pay for the BRT, he said, a better way would be to turn over the money to the city directly, and put all the workers on the city payroll, where they would be barred from engaging in politics.

If you have read the blog for a while, this controversy should sound pretty familiar, because Helen and the parents of Parents United have been pushing this issue for a long time:

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.

The article makes it seem like this was just some magical thing that happened when Chairman Archie and Seventy decided something was up. In reality, the groundwork was laid by parents organizing, investigating and screaming about this for a long time. Whether you have a kid in public school or not, if you believe in transparent, efficient and ethical government, then you owe some muckracking parents some thanks.

There are now a couple more questions. This is probably the most important:

It appears that the patronage mill will end, and this will become a fee-for-services type arrangement. But why should the price tag of the BRT be on the District's payroll at all? Wouldn't it would make more sense for the City, like every other City in the Country, just to do this, to not charge the district, and then if need be, adjust school funding or whatever. Why do we need to- again, unlike anyone else- shuffle money back and forth, rather than just eliminating this from the District's budget altogether?

Sorry, Dan

Can you delete the "quick hit" linking the same article?

Ms Ackerman said that as well

In the Inky article today. I don't know of any school district anywhere, and 100% guaranteed not in Pennsylvania do the school districts base their taxes on anything but county assessments, yet they play no formal role in assessments, even thought they must base their rates on those county-generated values. That's why school districts all over the Commonwealth sue the county assessors and vice versa all the time. Link inside the quote:

Washington County Court of Common Pleas Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca last year ordered the county to reassess its property values after two school districts sued the county over the inequity of its base-year assessment system.

At best, what a school district under law should be able to do (bu cannot) is have their own staff audit the values provided by the county which is a right exercised by some 3rd Class Cities.
More on the morass that is PA here.
Joshua Vincent
Phree Philly

Fee for service makes sense

You are absolutely right...the current system where scarce School District funds are used to hire hacks and pols is a fraud. If the District simply paid a fee for service that reflects the cost of the audit team assigned to the School District audit, it would be a much better situation. I will make it my business to enter into such an arrangement if elected.


Brett Mandel
Democrat for City Controller

And for clarity

I agree completely with Sean that fee for service makes perfect sense for the Controller's office, but as Brett says, hiring 8 employees at $600K+ is hardly fee for service. It's an inappropriate arrangement that we'll be arguing ought to go just like the BRT's former arrangement.

Thanks Dan! And a couple more points

about this supposed "fee for service arrangement" ( also posted at the Notebook):

  • I would think the District would want to be careful about saying that just because it receives revenue it needs to pay for the collection of that revenue. That's not something I would guess they would support in other areas. For example, the District collects 100% of the liquor by the drink tax but they don't pay fee for service to L&I. Do they want to open that gate with this kind of arrangement?
  • The people on the District payroll aren't assessors, they're "clerks." So technically, there's no reason to think that abolishing this funding would jeopardize collection of property tax revenue as Mr. Archie references in his statement
  • I don't know anyone who thinks either the City or the BRT is in any shape to assess a fair "fee for service" arrangement anyway. With the agency such a mess it couldn't actually be based on any real figure of cost.
  • I'm also wondering why Mr. Archie continues to insist on keeping this dialogue behind closed doors with him and the City. The District should call the BRT up for public review. Ask public questions. But instead it seems like the SRC Chair is determined to resolve this out of the public eye.

Meanwhile, unless the fee-for service is nominal, any funding of this endeavor is going to feel far more like a political handshake than anything grounded in reality. And I'm not sure why the District wants to do that when there are far more important things on their plate.

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