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District's spending choices reflect its values

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  • district building
    Harvey Finkle

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The way we choose to spend our money often reflects our values.

So when the School District chose to publicize a significant $100 million contract offer to Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members, a casual observer might conclude that District officials truly value those who work most closely with the city’s children and that the District had done all it could to negotiate a contract that is fair to all the stakeholders, from teachers to taxpayers.

In a Feb. 14 Notebook blog post titled “Wait for a teachers’ contract drags on,” District Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson was quoted as saying: “We have to reach a balance. Having unhappy teachers is not healthy. But if the system is not fiscally healthy, that is not good for kids either.” 

Monson is right. You can’t (or shouldn’t) spend money you don’t have. And it’s no secret that the District’s finances, although improving, remain dire. Missing from Monson’s assessment, however, is that the District’s financial woes are the result of systemic self-inflicted wounds – a microcosm of a conservative national trend to starve schools in order to label them failures and thus justify their privatization.

Due to over 15 years of woeful mismanagement by the unelected and unaccountable School Reform Commission, what began as a budgetary nosebleed turned into an economic hemorrhage. Yet, at every step along the way, the District did have money to spend. A lot of it.

There were apparently millions to spend on consultant reports from outsiders without ties or a commitment to the city, its children, and their families. 

There were millions to spend on outsourced contracts that neither improved efficiency nor outcomes – $34 million just in the Source4Teachers debacle, in which the firm widely missed fill-rate goals for finding substitute teachers.

There were millions to spend on legal expenses – and to settle lawsuits – related to the District’s tireless effort to rid itself of its obligations to children.

There was money to spend on a revolving door of six-figure central office administrators who dropped into Philly for a year to get some “urban cred” on their resumes and then left.

There was also money for bonuses for already well-compensated administrators who added some responsibilities, but not for teachers and secretaries who had done the same.

There was even money –a substantial amount per year – to secure Superintendent William Hite’s leadership for an additional five years, despite two years remaining on his original contract at the time. Perhaps he received fair market value for a superintendent with such vast and enormous responsibilities in a district the size of Philadelphia. I certainly don’t begrudge him or anyone else for getting paid his or her worth. I just question why the same doesn’t extend to members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, whose dedicated members most directly affect our city’s children, arguably among the nation’s most impoverished youth.

The District has also saved millions of dollars as a result of PFT members working under a status quo contract, which has resulted in frozen raises and no contractual increases since 2013.

Over the same period of time, it became clear that there were many things for which there was not money.  School nurses, counselors, librarians, basic school supplies, and critical repairs needed to create safer and healthier conditions for children were all “luxuries” that we were told we would just have to live without.

As with those who drink or gamble away their take-home pay, there often isn’t enough money for necessities, such as food, clothing, and shelter.

It’s not that there isn’t money, per se. It just comes down to what people value enough to spend it on.

Matthew Mandel is a national board-certified teacher in the School District of Philadelphia.

 

 

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