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Commentary: Is there a way out of the District's budget hole?

By Helen Gym on May 4, 2011 03:06 PM

The School District's plan to close the huge budget gap undermines the very bedrock of what we know works in education: early childhood supports, full-day kindergarten, transportation, a manageable class size.

But when the District is faced with a deficit of more than $600 million, are there better solutions?

Much of the public’s attention has been rightly focused on Harrisburg. But no matter what comes out of the final state budget debate, both the city government and the District also need a multi-tiered, short- and long-term approach toward addressing finances. The District also needs some serious re-consideration of the type of leadership that will help us get there.

First, Philadelphia needs a grassroots coalition-building approach toward Harrisburg. District officials have been organizing a series of bus trips and rallies to the state capital to protest the governor’s budget. But local leaders ought to know that actions which include only Philadelphians and feature the controversy-laden District in a prominent role will have limited impact.

The stronger tactic is to build alliances with districts and education supporters across the state, all of whom have benefited from improved funding for schools. This type of alliance helped win the historic Rendell-era funding formula in the first place. In a political environment that is so jaded about Philadelphia's needs, a coalition approach is needed more than ever.

Second, the city needs to re-establish its financial responsibility to the School District. Several years ago a group I co-founded, Parents United for Public Education, worked with others to secure a higher share of city real estate revenue for the schools. City Councilman Wilson Goode, Jr. sponsored a bill that increased the District's share from 58 to 60 percent and brought in an additional $10 million to the schools at the time.

Under the Nutter administration, we have seen that share decline from 60 percent to 55 percent, a difference of almost $60 million, according to the District’s finance office. Although property taxes have increased, the city's contribution to schools has reverted back to 2007-8 levels. The city has also held onto sacred cows like uber-generous tax abatements. An Inquirer analysis done in 2008 said that by 2012 the schools would have forfeited at least $109 million due to tax abatements. Our schools don’t see a dime of profit from the program until 2025. 

The mayor needs to take a proactive approach toward the deepest financial crisis to face our schools. The city must decide on an additional  allocation to help the District address the immediate budget gap. More important, the mayor must support re-establishing the 60 percent property tax share to schools and easing the financial impact of the tax abatement program.

Clearly, the District's spending priorities also need review. Last week, Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch offered to open up the District’s books and invite any and all viable solutions. We need to take him up on that offer.

It’s alarming that the District has so prominently targeted for cuts programs that we know work while leaving in place questionable initiatives and pet projects. For instance, it still plans to spend $23 million on summer school and has budgeted $24 million for extra supports for 18 Promise Academies. At the same time it is cutting $40 million from transportation, eliminating all bus service and TransPasses for regular education students attending District -run schools.

The District spends $400 million annually on contracting for services, claiming that about 75 percent of that is locked up in non-negotiable areas like utilities. That still leaves $100 million worth of discretionary contracts that include things like professional services that aren't even competitively bid; extraneous benchmark testing; and more than $4 million paid to the city for the Bureau of Revision of Taxes.

As a start, the District should identify and publish all contracts that cost more than the mean salary of a teacher, say $50,000 or more. It should specify which of these contracts are competitively bid, whether they are essential services to schools, and whether there’s been a review of their effectiveness. 

Finally, in any budget or fiscal crisis, integrity matters. The public needs to trust that the individuals making the decisions on potentially devastating proposals abide by a sense of stewardship and ethics. For example, the current budget forecast relies on the District’s ability to renegotiate the contract with the teachers’ union. But if District officials refuse to budge on their own exceptionally high salaries then it sure seems a stretch to expect others making far less money to do so.

Public officials love to say "it's about the kids" when talking about the schools. In a time of fiscal crisis, that commitment must mean identifying the District's essential mission and setting aside pet projects. It's not about rhetoric but about hard choices, priorities, and a need to exercise real fiscal discipline. 

This message so far is absent from leaders at the District, city and state. It's up to the public to set those priorities straight.

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Comments (24)

Submitted by Sanity N. Reason (not verified) on May 4, 2011 6:42 pm

I have a different take on ways to restructure the ways we cut spending. We don't need to close neighborhood schools. Instead let’s close the lavish and expensive SDP headquarters and displace the workers within the empty space that exists in the neighborhood schools. We are going to loose 500 employees there anyway so it will be too much space for what is left. We lease that building so we will save on rent. Moving central office staff will eliminate the vacant space that the 70 thousand empty desks occupy. We all have the required child clearances already as a condition of employment. SDP central office workers could be seamlessly woven into the fabric of the neighborhood schools. Just add it to our job descriptions. We could mentor. We could read to children. We could help out in the classroom. There are so many useful things that we could do. We could be the needed adult presence in persistently violent and troubled schools.
It is essential that we keep as many the neighborhood schools open as possible. We have to make the children’s needs come first. We would be part of the solution to fix our schools and be a shining inclusion model for the future in education. Instead of closing schools and moving students, move us around. We all communicate electronically anyway, so it would be easy to adapt. We have cars too, if we have to meet with other SDP offices, we can drive there. Before we bus students, let’s try it this way. Let’s save a bundle and CLOSE the ostentatious Queen's Palace that we live in now. Most schools have squalor conditions and by contrast we work in this shiny climate controlled palace. It is really embarrassing when you think about it. Queen Arleen has this Grand "Imagine" plan. Well IMAGINE all of the money we would save. The Queen and SRC recently spent a cool ONE MILLION DOLLARS on needless security turnstiles at SDP Headquarters. This is only one example of the lavish spending. With the School District check-book...Ackerman is quick on the draw. She is a tax-delinquent. What more evidence do we need to prove that she is a poor money manager?

Submitted by Teacher (K.R. Luebbert) (not verified) on May 5, 2011 7:29 am

Absolutely right, Sanity! Close that building, let some money-making business lease it, and disperse the staff into buildings that already exist and must be paid for. Lease all regional office buildings that do not contain used classrooms and disperse those staff. In this day and age of email, i phones, blackberries, people do not need to be in the same building to do their jobs. Of Course, then Arlene will not have layers of insulation between her and reality! She will not have her auditorium, conference rooms and security. If she cared about kids, this is what she would do.

Submitted by ThoseWhoCanTeach (not verified) on May 5, 2011 12:45 am

An absolutely brilliant commentary by Helen Gym. The school district should look to her for guidance and perspective - yet they're sure to do the opposite.

Gym is 100 percent right that those of us making far less than Dr. Ackerman - who has no concept at all what financial restraint means when applied to herself - will not be willing to negotiate our "barely get by" salaries until she gives up a significant amount of hers. She's also tragically correct in describing "Children First" as politically expedient lip service that has no correlation to the actual welfare of children.

Several people have mentioned that benchmark and predictive tests are worthless - basically another way to deprive students of learning time while padding someone's wallet. Cut them - they cost millions and the money is better spent on staff - and reconsider summer school. Ask any teacher and they'll tell you no kid can learn in 18 half-days what he failed to learn during the school year. How could he? Air conditioning runs relentlessly in summer schools, costing a fortune. It's just not worth it. Instead, remove the stigma of repeating a grade - and send a summer packet at home with all students and make it extremely clear that completing it is not optional.

How about not spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a professional development catalog that will end up with most of its offerings canceled? And why doesn't the district attempt to solicit more corporate partners. Many Philly-based businesses already partner with some of our magnet schools.

There are many things we can do to avoid having to cut staff, an action which will harm not only those laid off, but the students who need them. But doing so would take patience and integrity, neither of which seems in great supply at 440 S. Broad St.

There are many other things that can be done other than cut teaching positions.

Submitted by I Teach in Philly (not verified) on May 5, 2011 3:48 pm

Teachers' salaries have already been frozen so don't even ask us for a cut in pay now that gas prices and other things are on the rise. In addition, many district people are going to be laid off!

As long as Dr. Ackerman is making that fortune every year (yes, fortune!) plus bonu$e$ and other perks, she has a lot of nerve asking others to give up more than they already have.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on May 5, 2011 4:52 pm

We also need to acknowledge that the loss of summer school and extended day programs are pay cuts for many teachers.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 5, 2011 5:51 pm

In the beginning, we were promised that the cuts would "start at the top." I do NOT consider a few furlough days to be cuts at the top. The entire district is so top-heavy that I have no idea why it didn't sink already.

I don't mean the SELs and the SBISs and the case managers, or the much-scapegoated middlemen at 440. I mean the vice co assistant principals, the administrators who sit in an office pretending to check email all day, the administrators who do nothing at all besides hand down orders from 440. Many schools are held together by a good principal, but even in those schools there's somebody hiding in an office somewhere doing nothing.

People keep telling teachers that if we worked in any other industry we'd all be out of a job, welcome to America, ad nauseum. Well, in corporate America the deadweight, ineffective middle management goes FIRST. And they typically aren't missed. It is hard to judge the effectiveness of a teacher in a fair and qualitative manner. It is not as hard to judge the effectiveness of an administrator.

Yet, nobody has even mentioned it. They're cutting the lower-paid and more vital people (teachers, custodians, instructional support from 440, aides). What, are all the admins going to have classroom duties suddenly?!

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on May 6, 2011 3:18 am

Thank you, Helen (and Benjamin on Radio Times) for providing a viable alternative to Ackerman's budget. I didn't realize the City's contribution to schools has decreased. Nutter needs to increase the City's contribution if he expects Harrisburg to "budge." Nutter, for all intensive purposes, has been silent on issues from the City's (lack of) contribution, Archie's unethical behavior, Ackerman's "responsible for nothing" so-called leadership, etc.

Submitted by Dave (not verified) on May 7, 2011 9:27 am

I too commend both Helen and Ben. The State took over the governance and management of the our school district. It is primarily the resposibility of Governor Corbett to fund the schools, and Mayor Nutter also has the responsibility to fund our schools. The pseudo charter schools the administration and SRC have created should be put on hold until full day kindergarten, small class sizes in grades k-3, and all necessary academic and supportive personell are funded. The longer school day, and Saturday classes, and reconstituion ridiculousness should also be put on hold. There is no credible research whatsoever that demonstrates that longer school days and weeks increases anything. The PFT and other contracts should not be reopened. The total number of dollars owned by Americans and Pensylvanianas has not decreased. Our governors and mayors have just refused to tax the rich appropriately.

Once we get our school budgets in order, we need to have a full and open debate about the governance, leadership and management of the district. We also must consider changing the SRC to either be an elected school board or be a mix of elected and appointed members. We also have to strictly scrutinize the PSSA system of assessment -- the validity and reliability of their measurement techniques and their scores are suspect and the credibility of the whole high stakes testing phenomenon is questionable and counterproductive to meeting the true needs of our children.

To those of us who have dedicated our careers and lives to the the school children of Philadelphia, the present state of our district with its culture of adversarialism, reprisal and dishonesty is heartbreaking. It is sad to see the degeneration of our school district. We used to assess and track student growth in reading ability in a professionally sound and competent manner. Students who were two or more grade levels behind received the services of a properly trained reading specialist who taught classes with a maximum class size of 20 students. Students were given instruction designed by the reading specialsts to meet the individual needs of the students. We used both formal and informal assessment techniques in psychologically safe settings without undue pressure on students. We were honest about what we did and we did not fabricate test scores. If anyone thinks, our schools have improved since the State takeover, they need to do some homework, look at all of the test scores including the Terra Nova and Gates assessments, and listen to the teachers in the trenches whose voice has been shut out by the school district management.

We also need to go back to the days when principals were chosen by school communities through the site selection process where school communities chose their own leaders. Parents, students, community members and teachers were all included in that process. That is how leaders are chosen in most of our suburban -- high performing school districts. Principals should be given no more than 3 year terms, and then they should have to go through the process again. LEADERSHIP MATTERS.

The climate in many of our schools, and arguably our entire district, has become toxic. The common denominator of all Great Schools is that they are Great School COMMUNITIES....

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 8, 2011 10:20 pm

There's an easy way out. Concessions from the overpaid teachers and overpaid administration. If they don't like it, they are free to find work elsewhere.

Submitted by Kevin (not verified) on May 9, 2011 7:40 am

Same old tired rhetoric. PSD teachers are one of the lowest paid, if not the lowest paid teachers in thr state. BY contract, their salaries have been frozen so in essence they are currently in a pay freeze situation. And the say they are treated by the admiistration, why should they give back any more? Let the $100K folks at 440 give back first.
Check your facts before you hit the send button.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2011 11:31 am

If you don't like it, get a job at another school district.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2011 11:24 am

That advice is the problem. The poor working conditions drive many good teachers away to where we are paid more and treated with more respect. If we want the students to succeed, we should encourage the best teachers to stay - not encourage them to suck it up or leave.

Submitted by Kevin (not verified) on May 9, 2011 11:37 am

Your reply is typical of those who know nothing and spout off just to hear themselves and make themselves feel better.
Get your facts straight first and offer solutions. for your information and not that I expect you to care, most teachers are int he PSD because they want to be here and spend a lot of their own money for classroom supplies.
I beg you to come to my classroom in North Philly and see firsthand waht happens in a typical day. You wouldn't last five minutes.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2011 1:03 pm

Unfortunately, that advice is taken by many who can take it.

It's a problem -- many teachers who can get jobs elsewhere (either other school districts or other professions) do so. That leaves the District staffed by new teachers, teachers who tried to leave but couldn't, teachers who have burned out and are riding out their service time 'till pension eligibility, and some very dedicated fantastic teachers.

Many of the teachers who leave the SDP are from that last group -- the dedicated fantastic teachers. I salute those who can manage to endure the conditions and not lose their focus, motivation, and perspective. But with conditions, policies, and leadership like you get in the SDP it's very hard not to explore other places (districts or even other professions) where the dedication, compassion, and hard work won't be hindered by the very organization you work for.

Submitted by Dave (not verified) on May 10, 2011 12:04 pm

Yes, You are right. It is very sad. Many of our best and most dedicated educators have left our district because of the way it has been managed since the State takeover. Thankfully, there still are many Great teachers in every school trying to do their best under difficult circumstances.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2011 1:18 pm

The way to resolve this is to refuse to accept this budget and walk on Harrisburg with anger, real anger and full blown malice in our hearts. The Tea Party folks are not regular republicans. You can't reason with them, there is no mercy nor compromise. The Pitchforks and Torches mentality is all they understand so let's forget about all this singing and complacency and get it on already. When Corbett is afraid, he will back off, not until and all the rhetoric will result in nothing of consequence, maybe a morsel here and there but nothing more. The Tea Party folks are right out of the Joe McCarthy, John Birch Society school of scorn and abuse. They are racists, fascists and bullies who have no time for people of color nor any of their problems. Most republicans would NEVER formulate a budget like this, because they would be embarrassed but Tea Party slithering types simply have no consciences and so nothing to lose. All clear thinking people know the truth. This is Class Warfare, make no mistake about it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 11, 2011 4:58 pm

This is not just the Tea Party people who are fed up with tax increases to support overpaid and overbenefitted public unions, though you are right in that the Tea Party people will not be threatened by union goons. No, this is all taxpayers who are sick and tired of being asked to pay for bloated pensions and healthcare for civil servants who want to retire in their 50's.

Corbett was elected, by the people, to NOT raise taxes and to instead cut spending. That is exactly what he is doing. He will not be swayed by union thugs hiding behind children to get what they want.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 10, 2011 9:10 am

The cuts are coming. You can either accept that as the fact that it is, or you can live in denial, whine and complain, and then accept it after it happens. The simple fact of the matter is that the money is not there and it is not coming. Grow up and deal with it. The union has two choices: Either accept concessions and have no layoffs, or throw the younger teachers under the bus to save the senior peoples' gold plated packages. My guess is that the union will do the same as every other union always does, and that is sacrifice the younger workers because of the greed and corruption of the senior members and their entitlement mentality.

Submitted by youngphillyteacher (not verified) on May 10, 2011 11:15 am

Someone else needs to grow up, and look for greed and corruption where it actually can be found. Stop slandering our veterans!
The choice is very different from what your propaganda-filled brain produced. You can either give up and accept crumbs from the table of the rich and powerful. Or you can fight for your and your fellow citizens' human rights. I chose the latter.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 10, 2011 12:04 pm

In the early '70's there was a period of several years where new teachers got laid off. Each fall they were rehired as there were openings. These are the teacher you now say are corrupt and greedy. If you are ready to give up your seniority rights and improvement in your standard of living in the long run, you will regret it in future years when your turn comes.

This is a manufactured crisis. The state and federal government have bought into the tea party mantra. The rich have their taxes lowered even as they are getting richer each year. The military budget has doubled in the last ten years. We have three wars which have been run largely on credit. Bush gave $700 billion of our tax dollars to Wall Street and the banks in October, 2008. It goes on and on, and you think we should lower our living standards for this?!

Divide and conquer is the method of rule for all tyrants and you are falling for it.

Submitted by Dave (not verified) on May 10, 2011 7:37 pm

You both are absolutely correct. One of the reasons we created public education in the first place is to educate everyone so they could understand and discuss the great ideas of man and understand the world we live in. Education was not created to teach the PSSA. The young teachers need to listen to your forefathers and understand that your time will come. Everyone who wants to return after being laid off, will return sooner than you think.

I am not now a teacher, but I was for 35 years, and you need to have courage and stand together.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 11, 2011 4:21 pm

NOBODY at that level has bought into the lies. They have been able to con and yes, divide and conquer the middle class non union folks into believing the crap. AMERICA IS NOT BROKE... No matter how much time they spend in church and wave American Flags, they are neither Christian nor Patriotic. They are FASCISTS who want to take away your rights. Don't be fooled, PLEASE !!!!!!!!!! Read "First They Came." The Tea Party is nobody's friend but their own. Get Samrt and the sooner they are recalled the better. I'm a Republican leaning person but they are a bunch of cold blooded NUTS.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 18, 2011 12:41 pm

First I want to applaud Helen and the other founders of Parents United. Having a “watchdog” organization is urgently necessary when it comes to a massive bureaucratic organization as the PSD (Philadelphia School District). Thank you to the Notebook also for providing a forum in which to share thoughts, and vent frustrations!

A budget crisis is almost a gift. Money can’t be taken for granted as much as it has been routinely.

The theory is that public education better serves the needs of all. The reality is that private gain wins out over public good nearly every time in terms of being a motivator; and that acknowledging this with free market competition seems to be the only way to serve public good. The PSD gives lip service to accountability via parent choice and standardized evaluation; however there is no follow through, no mandatory reorganization in any real way. So long as they are protected under the umbrella of “public good”, there will be none. Unless the PSD can face reality, privatization (yes, consider even vouchers) might indeed best serve students and their families (and the hardworking teachers). There is nothing sacred about the PSD as it exists today. In fact, there is a “breaking point” at which there is no longer any advantage to pooling resources which can’t be effectively managed. Why not break this monster up into smaller districts that can actually compete? Follow through with the Charter idea, and make these truly independent. Maybe then students won’t have to travel so far to find the education that best serves their needs, and neighborhoods can truly invest in their local schools, and/or charitable organizations/businesses truly invest in a neighborhood.

If the PSD wants to stay relevant, it needs to really pay attention to what is working now, and what is preventing implementation of the same. True teamwork with teachers, not bogged down with local politics for example. Currently the Instrumental Music teachers are a model of efficient and effective instruction. The program itself suffers from underfunding, but what little it has is carefully administered. There is critical evaluation of the skills of each teacher, and thoughtful assignment. There is also a certain separation of power here, an almost “third party” which seems to work, and needs to be examined. I do not support educational funding cuts; however in terms of the PSD, and not necessarily agreeing to the letter with the proposed cuts, I still want to applaud the governor, and our other state legislators (those who have reintroduced the controversial voucher system into the discussion) who are risking their political careers to push for change.

Yes, we need a committee of stakeholders who are not afraid of numbers or critical thinking to take Mr. Masch up on his offer to open the books. More importantly we need disclosure on how spending decisions are made, and disclosure AT THE TIME they are made. Also, I agree that the current “professional development” expenditures need a hard/third party evaluation. Any hot new fashionable educational item needs to be evaluated in terms of connection to reality. Making the teachers jump through someone’s fantasy, padding the paperwork, etc. are definitely not productive in terms of real achievement for the children. While I’m here, I might as well also comment on that incredible contradiction of ideology and monstrosity of expenditure that Weighted Student Funding would promise. Putting more responsibility on the shoulders of the principal with no additional compensation, and less funding for the schools themselves (more going to administering the extra layer of complexity) does not add up to programs “tailored to a school’s population”.

Let’s not forget Title I. This was meant to supplement, not replace State and Local funding, and is paid for out of all of our pockets too. My experience has been that there is a lot of abuse here alone, in terms of the funds actually reaching the children. Remember, this is everyone’s money. Remember also the difficulty in reforming the Welfare system. Why not channel this money in the same way as “Race to the Top”? Make this competitively merit based.

At one time I thought a feedback system similar to eBay’s would be useful; however, much feedback is subject to culture, and popularity influence. Let us not forget that often constructive change is not popular.

Submitted by Bredgette (not verified) on November 9, 2012 6:15 am
The program itself suffers from underfunding, but what little it has is carefully administered.

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