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Commentary: $8 million District slush fund is why we need more than political theater

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Ackerman Remarks About 'Job For Life': MyFoxPHILLY.com

It’s business as usual at the School Reform Commission. $629 million budget gap? Pshaw. Public officials demanding oversight? Meh. 

All you have to do is look at the resolutions on the docket for the Monday, June 13 voting meeting. Let’s start with SRC-16, a resolution that sets aside a whopping $8 million for the coming year for what the administration calls “limited contracting authority” (LCA). District officials define it as contracts under $15,000 that would not require SRC review but would go through a staff committee instead. One argument presented was that the SRC had so many resolutions to look at already, it shouldn’t be bothered with contracts of such a low amount.

Hold on a second right there.

It’s stunning to me that the District continues unchallenged with this type of behavior and rhetoric. No one wants to micromanage, but $8 million is an amount equal to the base salaries of more than 100 teachers.

Back in 2006 and 2007, the SRC was clearly concerned about LCA oversight. They adopted two measures in order to put tighter controls on those funds, including lowering the amount to $15,000 from $25,000 and prohibiting departments from using contractors multiple times for the same service that would result in exceeding the stated LCA limit. 

It is simply wrong for the District at this time to urge the SRC to vote for $8 million for LCAs based on convenience and inconsequentiality of small contracts. Instead, the SRC should be asking for a full accounting of spending under the LCAs to determine whether LCA funds were properly disbursed and to ensure that there is no waste or abuse.

One would think that the crippling deficit, a federal IRS investigation, and outcries from city and state officials about the District’s poor financial would put a stop to such shenanigans. But apparently not.

Which brings me to my next point: What exactly is the purpose of the political theater surrounding a memorandum of understanding if stuff like this continues to happen at the District? Elected officials are fond of trotting out words like accountability and oversight, especially in the national spotlight and around budget season. What they forget is that these words require work and the practice of saying NO.

Consider the resolutions up for vote on Monday:

  • $2 million to retain outside counsel, on top of a 38-member, $7.5 million legal office that expanded by $1 million this year.
  • $1.4 million for lease renewals and amendments to educational programs, $157.6 million for “contracts for services” at various schools and locations, and another $10 million for “contracts for materials” at various schools and locations. Have these contracts been thoroughly reviewed as essential priorities?
  • $150,000 for the superintendent’s 2011 summer leadership institute, essentially a few days of school-funded networking. Me? I’d rather have two more teachers working next year.
  • More leadership training? $805,000 to the University of Pennsylvania Center for Educational Leadership; $94,000 to the Enterprise Center; and $75,000 to the Princeton Center.

In the fall of 2006, when then-CEO Paul Vallas revealed a shocking $73 million deficit, the SRC immediately moved into action. They publicly excoriated Vallas for his financial management and seized financial control. They pushed out the CFO at the time, hired Public Financial Management to begin instituting controls, and dramatically put on hold spending. Classrooms suffered cuts but the SRC was able to largely address the deficit through immediately reduced spending. As a result, it made it easier for Parents United and other groups to successfully lobby City Council for more funds. It’s simply baffling that this administration has willfully refused to follow such a commonsense approach.

What's incredibly frustrating is that our schools need and deserve more money from the city and the state. And as shocked as people may be by the $70-$100 million figure put out by the mayor, the failure by city and state officials to oversee the past three years of financial chaos at the District will cost us far more - not just next year but many years down the road. It isn't right to put out the message that we can do this painlessly either. It will be painful. It will result in higher taxes and possibly lost services.

So as a parent with children in this system, it's beyond frustrating to see so much rhetoric, so many political agendas, and not just clear action. Action that breaks rank with the current administration that has completely lost credibility. Action that institutes professional financial oversight through an entity like PICA, rather than through political bodies like Council and the mayor's office, whose attention spans wax and wane with the headlines of the day. Action that demands the SRC rebuke resolutions like those above.

Last week more than 3,000 people received notice that they had lost their jobs. Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, outlined to me the teacher losses across the system: 619 fewer elementary school teachers, among them 115 English teachers, 121 math teachers, and 66 social studies teachers. Our high schools lost 22 biology teachers, 17 chemistry teachers, 3 physics teachers, and 6 general science teachers. We lost 50 art teachers, 8 music teachers, 31 ESL teachers, and 323 special ed teachers.

At the same time, Fox29 caught Superintendent Arlene Ackerman joking before last week's SRC meeting about getting her "job for life" back, and sourly dismissing the idea of making a public statement the day after people lost their jobs. Just say we're short on time, Ackerman told SRC Chair Robert Archie.

We are short on time.

The 2011-12 budget does not represent the interests of children, classrooms, or the state of education in Philadelphia. A moratorium must be put in place on all new contracts, and we need people to challenge the broader elected leadership to hold accountable a District that continues to act with impunity despite all they’ve done wrong.

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