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Community implores SRC to fight for more money

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    Photo: Benjamin Herold

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Speaker after speaker at a marathon School Reform Commission meeting Thursday night urged the five members to fight for more money for the District rather than passively accept deep cuts from the state.

"My 2nd grader cannot afford eight years of a governor who is going to continue to cut public education," said Ann Gemmell, a Meredith school parent, speaking of Gov. Corbett.

Other speakers at the six-hour meeting echoed that theme. Many of them cited a report by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC) that said that, in addition to the cuts, the District lost tens of millions of dollars by borrowing money through toxic interest rate swaps pushed by big banks.They demanded that the SRC fight to get that money back from the banks, which were bailed out by taxpayers.

"Use your bully pulpit," said Seth Kulick, a parent and member of Occupy Philly. "Do you stand with the 1 percent or the 99 percent?"

The meeting saw the SRC sign on a high-priced consulting firm for an intensive, five-week engagement to help both narrow its budget gap and reorganize its management.

But before that the SRC got an earful from speakers about both threatened school closings and the impact of the relentless cuts. The District, faced with a massive shortfall, has made multiple rounds of cuts from schools and must find another $39 million in reductions before the end of this fiscal year.

Sonja Kerr of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia said that threatened cuts of psychologists, who evaluate students for special education services, will be devastating for students with disabilities by keeping them waiting even longer for proper services. And cutting nursing services "is a recipe for disaster," she said, especially in a district with high rates of asthma and Type 1 diabetes.

"My school is going under," said Baseerah Watson, a senior at Sayre High School and a member of Philadelphia Student Union. Among other things, it has seen an "increase of unqualified teachers."

She asked, "What are you doing to fight for more money for our District?"

Saying that 70 percent of Pennsylvania corporations avoid paying income taxes, retired teacher (and Notebook board member) Ron Whitehorne said that the SRC should challenge "the message that there is no money to restore education funding.... We reject that the community has to give up more."

Commissioners didn't answer Watson and Whitehorne directly, but SRC Chair Pedro Ramos spoke later about how the SRC is working to restore stability and consistency to the District in difficult financial circumstances.

"The proposed state budget is flat; city level, there is some growth there. ... With this economy we have to budget as if our revenues are not going up," Ramos said. "Certainly they are not going up as fast as expenditures."

He also suggested that people "make their voices heard about taxes. At the end of the day, a lot of tax policy is driven by what elected officials believe voters are willing or not willing to pay," Ramos said. Corbett has stood firm against raising any taxes to balance his budget, relying entirely on cuts.

As for the losses through the credit default swaps, District officials have said that the PBPC report is inaccurate. Michael Masch, now an adviser to Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen, said that while it paid more than $80 million in fees over two years to get out from under these bad deals, this was done through a financing plan that saved money.

Regardless of the actual cost to the District of swaps, the clear message from speakers was that the SRC must take a more prominent role in issues around funding equity.

"There is a desire for your leadership around funding, said Brian Armstead, the director of civic engagement for the Philadelphia Education Fund. He urged the SRC to help organize a "coordinated campaign" to win education funding with the mayor as well as other cities and school districts.

There were 44 registered speakers, almost all of whom actually spoke. The public comments ended at 9:52 p.m., more than four hours after the meeting started. Only then did the SRC take up a full complement of resolutions, and on several of those they accepted comments or questions from members of the dwindling audience. The meeting ended at 11:30 p.m.

Among the resolutions was one to spend more than $1.4 million to hire Boston Consulting Group for five weeks of "intense" work starting immediately to help design a decentralized academic model, identify operational savings, and find new reductions and efficiencies. The firm was selected from four that were interviewed in response to a District search.

Knudsen said the firm had extensive experience with troubled school districts, adding that work needed to start immediately and be completed by late March in order to guide the District's budget process.

Although the resolution didn't specify this, Ramos said that he was confident that the District could raise the cost of this contract from "philanthropic sources." Until funds are secured, it will be paid for from the operating budget, he said.

Beyond the cost, speakers from the audience raised concerns that they didn't know what decentralization meant, that it could lead to more inequities, and that the SRC chose this direction without public input.

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett said he agreed "we must be very careful how we do decentralization, we have to be very fair."

Commissioner Lorene Cary said her understanding was that the initiative was to "acknowledge where we already are" with so many charter schools and other options such as Promise Academies "rather than making a decision to go further." 

Other issues that came up at the meeting:

  • Representatives from Philadelphia Black Clergy said the religious community should be involved in the superintendent search; other speakers said there need to be teachers, people who understand special education, and other community representation on the search committee

  • Students from Youth United for Change urged the SRC to alter its approach to discipline by clarifying the arrangement with the Philadelphia Police Department to minimize arrests in schools and adopting such programs as positive behavior supports and restorative justice initiatives, which stress prevention rather than punishment.

  • Officials from the technology and information offices showcased all the resources available online to students, teachers, and parents, including individual student record, and textbooks, ad college planning tools. SRC members were concerned, however, about the "digital divide" and asked for a study of how lack of internet access was impacting families' use of the system.

  • There was more angst on the part of SRC members about being asked to retroactively approve contracts that have already been executed. There were several on the agenda, and they all passed, but Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky voted against them. "I don't think we can work this way," he said.

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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.