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?

Dan you have an excellent point

If we are going to have the city fund the schools to fund the BRT to figure out how much property taxes the city will collect to fund the schools, its a much simpler operation to account for whatever "extra work" the School District places upon the BRT (or future assessing agency) at the front end. Certainly its much more streamlined and logical flow of funding than the city paying the School District to pay the BRT for work it does for the city - especially since it turns out that work is not always of the best quality (or of any quality at all).

I have frankly always been a little mystified as to what "extra work" the School District incurs exactly since as I understand it the BRT generates an assesment, the city collects the property taxes accordingly and a straight percentage of whats collected goes to the School District with the other piece going to the city's general fund. in other words, all the assessing work would have to be done for the percentage that goes to the city anyway. Its the exact same assessment, the city and the School District just split whats collected roughly in half.

One can make a similar case about the Controller's office, which under the current Controller also houses patronage jobs under the School District's budget to evade civil services rules and skirt fiscal accountability. The situation however is a little different for the Controller's office, since the Controller actually does work auditing the School District's books that is not a mere duplication of work it would do overseeing the city's books. One could mention that under the current Controller the depth and severity of fiscal scrutiny applied to the schools seems to vary on the level of personal animosity between the Controller and the School's CEO, but thats another story.

In the case of the Controller's office doing the exact same type of misdirection of School District resources, a fee-services model probably makes the most sense - since the amount and quality of work done for the School District is unique and distinct. Additionally there is a small incentive for school administrators to better police their own books, since under a fee-service model, extra money required to investigate fraud and bad bookkeeping would take a small bite out of their overall funding. It really does however underline the importance of having a Controller that plays it even-steven performing routine audits regularly and only launching more expensive in-depth performance audits based on actual evidence in the more routine audits, because recent memory underlines the risks of personal animosities possibly feeding the case for punitive "fishing expeditions".

Its actually a really good candidate question, it seems to me.

Brett, are you out there?

MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

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

Thanks, Brett

Fee-for-service for the Controller's office and I'm assuming for post-BRT property assesors (if we end up there) getting their share up front rather than the city paying the School District to pay back the city for city workers.

Considering the depth of the mess at the BRT, that alone would be reason enough to vote your way on May 19th, for me at least.

For my part I would further back Helen in the concept that since the county has to assess property owners anyway, we probably should consider "giving" that public information to the schools anyway. At most a nominal adjustment of funding at the front end.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

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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