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Report says that District needs to focus more on ethics and transparency

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The School District does not do enough to train employees or clarify and enforce its ethics policies, a long-awaited report being discussed at the School Reform Commission today concludes.

As a result of the lack of focus, members of the public lack confidence that the School District officials and personnel act in an ethical manner, says the report, which was compiled by a task force of outside experts and completed in December, 2012 -- 14 months ago.

Although there are a lot of rules governing the conduct of District employees, people don't know where to find them or who they should approach with questions, said Ellen Mattleman Kaplan of the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group, who testified before the task force.

"Nobody is doing ethics training, nobody is reviewing the rules to see if they are up-to-date and applicable to what is happening at the School District now," Kaplan said.  

The report was requested by former School Reform Commission Chair Pedro Ramos when he took office in fall 2011, on the heels of a series of ethical controversies involving District leadership. The District gave no explanation on why the report itself has not been widely disseminated or presented to the SRC until now. 

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the report, now posted on the District's website, has been in the public domain since March, when the Daily News obtained a copy and wrote about it. He said it has has been available on the website of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, which headed the task force that produced the document. But on Tuesday there was not an active link to the report on the United Way's web page about the ethics task force.

Kaplan said that she suspects that the District put the issue on the back burner because it was dealing with other crises, such as funding, school closings, and trying to hammer out a teachers' contract.

"The main point here is that ethics is not an afterthought," Kaplan said. "It can’t stand back and wait for other things to get resolved. ... Ethics has to be woven into everything you do because there are ethical issues that come up day after day after day. People have to trust the people making decisions are of the highest integrity and communicate to people at the School District that they expect them to behave as ethically as possible."

Gallard said that the School Reform Commission is now ready to tackle the issue -- "where are we now, what has been accomplished since the report came out, and what are the next steps."

In a presentation to Tuesday evening's SRC meeting, Michael Davis, the District's chief counsel, pointed to deficiencies in the current practices about ethics and cited recommendations for clarifying policies, making its practices transparent, and establishing a "strong culture of ethics." Davis said the District needs to name a senior official to serve as "point person" on ethical matters.

The report expresses concern that due to budget cuts, "auditing and compliance staff at all levels has been sharply reduced, even as the number of contracts has increased." It says that given the District's financial constraints, "it is tempting to skimp on oversight, and to back-burner concerns which may seem removed from the District's core teaching function. But in reality, tough times require heightened diligence."

The task force did not find pervasive ethical violations within the District:

Based on its review, the Task Force concluded that the vast majority of School District personnel and those who work with the District seek to perform their daily activities with integrity. 

But its recommendations acknowledge a need to restore public confidence that ethical standards are actively enforced:

Despite the existence of [a code of ethics], and the integrity displayed every day by most of the District's employees, far too few District employees or members of the general public appear to have a high degree of confidence that District business is conducted in the most ethical manner.

The task force did not directly look into the long-running investigation of changing of answers and other cheating on standardized tests, saying it was beyond the scope of its work. But the report does note that the climate in the District could contribute to the problem of cheating: "The Task Force believes that cheating flourishes in an atmosphere where accountability for ethical violations is episodic, training sparse, and employees are not inculcated in an ethical culture."

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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.