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Rendell SRC appointees talk cash, politics

David Girard diCarlo, one of the two newest members of the School Reform Commission, said in a recent interview that he believes the state does not spend enough money on education nor contribute enough to the Philadelphia School District.

That position may not seem unusual for a member of the District’s governing body. But Girard-diCarlo is a prominent Republican lawyer and fundraiser. And the default position of the state’s Republican leaders for at least 15 years has been that the city schools drain resources and waste much of the money they do receive from Harrisburg.

“I don’t think we [the District] get adequate money,” Girard-diCarlo said in the interview. “We don’t have enough money to do what we need to do.”

Girard-diCarlo, a former ambassador to Austria in the George W. Bush administration, took his seat in October along with Joseph Dworetzky, filling out the seats on the five-member board. The Notebook spoke to both in December after their first two months on the job.

Both were appointed by Gov. Rendell, who is now in the last year of his term.

Girard-diCarlo, the only Republican on the panel, said he would work to make education funding an issue in this year’s governor’s race.

“I hope…that the candidates for governor will be questioned hard by the media and the constituencies about what their view of education funding might be,” he said. “And I think that putting pressure on those candidates, whether they be Republican or Democrat, is absolutely in order.”

James Nevels, a Republican who served as the first SRC chairman from 2002 to 2007, became an advocate for more funds for Philadelphia. The SRC was installed to replace the Board of Education when the state took over the District due to “fiscal distress.”

But Nevels didn’t speak out in general about a need for school funding reform and general increases in education spending.

Dworetzky, a Democrat, also has a history of advocating for more equitable school funding. While City Solicitor, he represented the city interests during the long-running school desegregation case in the 1990s, when Rendell was mayor. He argued then that the while District needed more money to adequately educate its students, it was the state’s responsibility to provide it. The city was then recovering from a near-bankruptcy.

Having abandoned any attempt at desegregating schools, Judge Doris Smith-Ribner ordered reforms in low-performing, mostly Black and Hispanic schools that were estimated to cost $1 billion as a way to reach settlement. The state balked at paying and said the city bore responsibility, even though it was not an official party to the case

As part of his argument, Dworetzky presented evidence showing that, due to a change in the way the state disbursed aid to districts, Philadelphia’s share had declined relative to inflation while aid to the rest of the state had increased by more than 8 percent.

Since Rendell became governor, he endorsed changes in education funding that distributed money to districts based on a formula reflecting the economic and educational needs of their students, using the findings of a so-called “costing out” study commissioned by the legislature. 

Rendell said he wanted to bring the state share of education funding to 50 percent, the national average. Until recently, Pennsylvania contributed one of the lowest percentages of any state to education – less than 40 percent – putting most of the burden on local districts and exacerbating disparities in spending between the richest and poorest.

The new formula has brought millions more to Philadelphia in each of the past two years, but it is in jeopardy. This past year, Republicans ultimately pared back Rendell’s plans to use federal stimulus money to pump even more aid to districts, holding out instead to use much of that money to replace education funds previously provided from state revenue.

This year, the state will be hard-pressed to come up with funds for continued expansion in state education aid as Rendell has called for. Then, since the stimulus money runs out after the coming fiscal year, the legislature will have to vote a huge increase in state aid to education for the 2011-12 year just to maintain the same level of spending.  

While endorsing more state education spending in general and for Philadelphia, Girard-diCarlo made it clear that he believed the SRC must be a watchdog to assure that Philadelphia makes good use of the money it has.

“We do have a responsibility as commissioners to make sure that the money that we get is spent as prudently, as wisely, and as efficiently as we can,” he said.

He added that increased spending on education could pay off in other areas.

“If you look at how much money we spend on our corrections system per person on an annual basis, and you contrast that with how much money we spend on our education of our kids, if we would spend more money on the education of the kids, we might not have to spend quite as much money on our corrections system in the future.”

The state spends more than $33,000 per prisoner per year and the inmate population is steadily growing – from less than 37,000 in 2000 to nearly 50,000 today.

As for the desegregation case, the District recently settled it after nearly 40 years when Judge Smith-Ribner accepted Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 strategic plan as a blueprint for reform. No overall price tag has ever been attached to its programs, but the first-year costs of such initiatives as hiring more counselors and reducing class size were estimated at $126 million.

Dworetzky said that he is still boning up on details but that he believes Imagine 2014 is a “pathway” to address what he called “profound” issues that remain in the District.

From work in other areas, Dworetzky said, it became apparent to him that issues like crime and dependency on social welfare programs are a “symptom whose root cause is lack of education,” which is why he accepted a seat on the SRC.

He added, that “the hard work is getting from a plan to reality” and “achieving [Imagine 2014] will be very difficult.”

Dworetzky said that one area of concern to him is the quality of teacher preparation and training.

This is an area that is not emphasized in Imagine 2014, which concentrates more on expanding personnel and mandating programs. The District just announced implementation of a planned objective to open regional professional development centers  where teachers can go to get support and new ideas.

Girard-diCarlo and Dworetzky were named to the SRC in the wake of the resignation of Heidi Ramirez, who had developed a reputation as the most outspoken member of the commission.  At every meeting, she could be counted on to pose probing questions to staff about the resolutions that were under consideration. She also frequently responded to public speakers at the meetings.

Ramirez said she resigned because she felt her view of education reform and the role of the SRC in promoting it had become “inconsistent” with Ackerman and her administration.

In appointing her replacement and that of former Commissioner Jim Gallagher, Gov. Rendell emphasized that he did not want commissioners who were going to “rubber stamp” the recommendations of staff. Both new commissioners have said that they intend to probe and ask questions.

Since taking their seats, neither of the new commissioners has been nearly as vocal as Ramirez. But both have posed questions about resolutions and asked for clarifications during presentations on topics such as the budget.

At recent meetings, Commissioner Johnny Irizarry has been the only member who has regularly engaged in follow-up conversation with speakers presenting testimony, as Ramirez used to do.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.