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Parents United for Public Education: Questions Council ought to ask the District

By Helen Gym on May 24, 2011 04:18 PM

In my spare time, I'm lucky to work with an amazing group of parents citywide who've formed and re-ignited Parents United for Public Education, an all-volunteer, independent collective of parents who believe in quality schools and responsible funding.

As we've watched this budget battle unfold - and we've seen tactics like this unveiled in previous years with this administration - I'm feeling more and more that the District has unfairly put up essential services to schools in order to avoid what ought to be pointed questions about their priorities, spending practices and managerial and financial oversight.

Parents United distributed a memo to City Council members today to encourage a forum for these questions, one of the few places where District officials may actually have to answer questions rather than sit stonily or obfuscate. In the interest of openness, I am publishing Parents United's memo to Council below. We're interested in your reaction.

DATE:           May 24, 2011
TO:                 Members of City Council
FROM:           Helen Gym, on behalf of Parents United for Public Education
RE:                 City Council hearings on School District budget

Thank you very much for the opportunity to share Parents United’s analysis of the District budget situation. Parents United for Public Education is an all volunteer, independent collective of parents which believes in quality schools and responsible funding. Our priorities in this budget:

  1. Ensure full-day kindergarten ($24 million).

  2. Restore free transportation for all school-age students ($38.5 million). 

  3. Restore the 29% cut in each school’s discretionary funds ($61 million).

  4. Impose a moratorium on all non-essential contracts, hiring of personnel, and start-up/expansion of new programs and initiatives.

  5. Restore the District's share of property tax revenue from 55% to 60% through a millage shift and assume the $4 million BRT expense and the City Controller’s office salaries.

We believe that the District has unfairly put up essential services rather than set priorities, change their spending practices, and jettison non-essential expenses. We are advocating that Council give more money for targeted allocations, BUT we also ask Council to demand changes in the District’s proposed budget.

District budget concerns

Summer school:

The District plans to spend $23 million on an 18-day summer school program, nearly the same amount it would cost to cover full-day kindergarten.

  • Last week, the SRC passed a resolution approving $4.7 million for textbooks for the 18-day program.[1] How is this a strategic use of money?

  • The SRC also approved more than $1 million for enrichment activities like a sports and art camp. While we do not deny the importance of enrichment, again, is this a priority area for such a brief time period?

Extra time for Promise Academies

Parents United supports the extra per pupil expenditure for students. However, the majority of the $24 million cost to expand the Promise Academies lies primarily in paying teachers extra hours for a longer day, Saturdays and a longer school year.

  • Please ask: What was the percentage Saturday attendance of Promise Academy students this year, both in terms of range (low to high) as well as average.
  • What data exists to indicate that the longer hours has substantively contributed to justify the cost?

Executive Salaries

  • By my count, there are at least nine individuals at the District that earn as much as or more than the Mayor, including the CEO ($348K), Deputy Supt Nunery ($230K), CFO Mike Masch ($211K), General Counsel Michael Davis ($190K), Supt. of Strategic Planning ($180K), Director of Communications Jamilah Fraser ($170K) and Deputy Communications Evelyn Sample Oates ($165K?), Associate Supt. of Academics formerly David Weiner ($165K), and Deputy Admin to Supt. Claudia Averette ($160K). How is this justified?

  •  In the Office of the Superintendent, expenses are projected to increase by 20% from FY10 to FY12.[2] The superintendent’s office includes a number of highly paid positions like $135K Deputy of Process Improvement, an Executive Director of Project Management, and four Special Assistants to the Superintendent among others. What are these individuals’ job responsibilities and how will this office be impacted by the central office reductions?

  • In the Communications office, expenses also increased by almost a third from FY10 to FY12. There is a $170K Chief communications officer, a $165-180K Deputy of Communications, and six additional staff who earn over $100K. By my count the SRC approved this year alone more than $670K in communications and consulting contracts: Frontline solutions: $153K; Jada Creative communications: $83,572; Ceisler Jubilerer: $45,000; KSA-Plus communications $22,575; OMG Center for Collaborative Learning: $28,628; Positive Promotions: $146,534; Third Eye Productions: $64,841 ; Radio One Inc.: $22,674 ; Maven Inc.: $77K Govt. relations; John Callahan and Mark Christy scouting video: $29,605


  • Ask the District to explain benchmark tests and predictive tests. How much did the District spend this year on non-mandated testing and test prep materials. How much do they plan to spend next year?

  •  In FY2011, the District spent $2.2 million on a new program called ACHIEVE3000. In FY2010 it spent$460K on this program, and in 2009 it received no funding. Why is this program deemed an essential service?


  • The District does not have to competitively bid for professional services contracts. Will it commit to changing this practice moving forward?

  • Please check the Budget in Brief, Page 39, line 238: The Associate Supt. of Academics receives more than $63M in grants this year to distribute. Next year that position will have $54 million in money. That’s the money we don’t know anything about. Can the District account for the $63 million in expenditures this year? Where is it going and what contracts aren’t they renewing next year to get down to that $54 million?

  •  In the past four months, the District has continued to spend millions of dollars on non-essential contracts: Please see attached.

English Language Learners

The District has proposed a 50% reduction in number of bilingual counseling assistants (from 104 down to 51) and a 20% reduction in the number of ESL teachers.

  • What is the projected enrollment of ELL learners next year versus this year?

  • The District may note that it has created a new bilingual support position for schools. Please ask how the training differs from BCAs and to whom the support people will report.

  • The creation of this position still leaves a significant cut in on-site bilingual services. Parents and community members have complained of lack of language services at schools. How does the District justify this level of cuts?

[1] Resolution B-10, approved by the SRC May 18, 2011. “Categorical Grant Fund/Operating Funds: $4,670,800 Contracts with Voyager/Cambium Learning ($3,000,00); Holt, Rhinehart Winston ($540,000); School Specialty ($580,000); Classroom, Inc. ($280,000); Pearson Longman ($100,000); Carolina Biological ($50,200); Scholastic ($70,000); and Various Vendors ($50,000) to provide textbooks and instructional materials – Summer Learning and More (SLAM).”

[2] Page 391 of the full budget book.

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Comments (23)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 24, 2011 8:17 pm

Helen Gym ROCKS!!!!! While you are asking questions, please inquire about all the materials that are sitting on the fifth floor of 440 Broad St and in all the school closets. There are millions of dollars of valuable learning resources and curriculum materials just collecting dust. As a taxpayer and parent, I am appalled at the way this administration has wildly spent money to advance a personal agenda that is based only in purported theories and not true educational research. In the end someone's doctoral thesis is being written on the back of this city's children.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 24, 2011 8:34 pm

This is the absolute first time I've seen anything about a reduction in the number of ESOL teachers. BCAs, Newcomer Academies, bilingual teachers have all been mentioned before. Judging by the number of ESOL vacancies posted today, I'm a bit perplexed in this new 20% reduction figure.

Submitted by kaya (not verified) on May 25, 2011 2:44 am

In the end someone's doctoral thesis is being written on the back of this city's children.

Submitted by Chungsoo J. Lee (not verified) on May 25, 2011 2:41 am

Finally someone has analyzed the school budget and figured out why there is such a large deficit. The cut must start at the top, not at the bottom where pupils are. Helen, you have spoken the truth like a real prophet. Please continue to speak the truth.

Submitted by Rich (not verified) on May 25, 2011 6:39 am

Thank you for the information and thank you for putting so much work into our district. Your presentation is very enlightening and I hope it leads to a more student centered and community centered budget.

All of that test preparation stuff, predictives, etc. is unnecessary and counterproductive to dynamic student centered instruction. Summer school and its cost vs. effectiveness needs to be looked at, too.

We need to also open a conversation on what are really the "best pactices" in instruction and look at the district through that lens.

Submitted by Rich (not verified) on May 25, 2011 7:14 am

I meant to spell "best practices." Sorry for the typo. It is a "best practice" to have someone else proof read your stuff before you publish it!

Submitted by BLIZ (not verified) on May 25, 2011 8:46 am

Yes, summer school effectiveness should most definitely be in question. I am most concerned with the way the opportunity for summer school sets up a culture of mediocrity in the classroom during the year. Students and families should have to pay for summer school in the cases where a student had every opportunity to work hard and pass during the year. Of course, there will always be exceptions and provisions could be set up to handle those exceptions. But students literally say, "summer school is easier I'll take this course then," and then they blow off the ENTIRE year. They don't understand what the full consequences of that are. We need to set up a system that holds students and families accountable, not the other way around.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2011 2:14 pm

My husband is an ESOL teacher for k-3 grade. He feels he accomplishes a lot during summer school because his has a smaller group of children, and they are concentrating on his subject and not all subjects. Just sayin'.

Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on May 25, 2011 2:22 pm

Then fund ESOL and Special Education programs in the summer. Helping these students in small groups is very beneficial. But 20+ million to pass kids on regardless of their academic year is ridiculous. They are passed on regardless if they show up or not in the summer.

Submitted by Rich (not verified) on May 25, 2011 2:42 pm

Now that's a positive summer school experience! Does he have the freedom and flexibility to tailor his instruction to what the students actually need?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2011 2:19 pm

He gets some guidance. One year, Victory set up an art curriculum for the summer, and he brought in some friends of ours that are artists to work with the children. But generally, he has much more freedom in the summer than he does during the school year, when he spends a lot of time supporting the regular classes.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2011 2:26 pm

The ESOL summer program is not for "credit recovery" - to make up for failed courses. It is the "credit recovery" that historically is a problem. I've had high school students who tell me why go to school 180 days when they can go 18 for the same credit. Summer school for "credit recovery" is also a lot of "seat" time. While your husbands small group of K-3 students may acquire more English ("his subject"), that is very different than students who blew off the school year for an easy ride in summer school.

Submitted by BLIZ (not verified) on May 25, 2011 2:16 pm

You are "just sayin'" what I mean by an exception. I would consider ESOL instruction to be enrichment and well worth offering to students for free.
What I am talking about is what happens in the high school culture. Free summer school is MUCH more of a detriment to students than a help.
Think before you judge a comment please.

Submitted by Rich (not verified) on May 25, 2011 3:18 pm

Bliz, you are right, too. I have seen many high school students tell their teachers point blank: "I don't care. Go ahead flunk me. I'll just go to summer school and pass the _______ class anyway!"

That's all part of the evaluation process. So is this conversation. It informs us all so we as a community can make well reasoned choices. That is what a "professional learning community" is. We have to respect each other and listen to each other. It is called an "open climate."

This site has so much possibility as a forum for professional dialogue which is something that is lacking in the district and sorely needed.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2011 9:36 am

Thank you, Parents United, for raising excellent questions. There are many programs that may be nice to have (e.g. summer school/camp sports and arts) but these are also available through recreation centers. The rec centers charge minimal fees ($25 - $30). While this may be prohibitive to families with many children, I'm sure the Rec department can institute a sliding scale.

Ackerman, while asking the City to pay for some services provided by the SDP such as social workers, at the same time is duplicating some city services (summer camps). This may be a "drop in the bucket" but it is indicative of the budget planning under Ackerman. As many have written, her "pet projects" get funded regardless of their efficacy while necessary programs (e.g. kindergarden), don't get funded.

Submitted by Wake Up Philly (not verified) on May 25, 2011 5:44 pm

The Rec Centers have scholarships for parents who cannot afford summer camp. You need to ask how and when to apply for them, but the parent needs to apply for them. Also, some of the Rec Centers offer a discount for multiple children.

Are parents questioning why the graduation rate is rising? The students who have not gone to school ALL YEAR or have not worked at their schooling for the year are being brought to school for 18 days and earning the credits needed to graduate. I don't want students to feel that they can slide by all year, then attend 18 days of summer school in order to graduate with their number of credits needed. Isn't this a dummying down of our children? What a lesson to learn - don't produce all year, but we can slide you through during Summer School!!!!
I want students to be better educated in order to be productive in and for our communities.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2011 12:37 pm

Unbidded contracts should be made illegal in the PSD.

Council must pass legislation tied to any funding changes or increases addressing this to assure that the massive obvious waste in giving contracts to friends and relatives, or potentially valuable businesses that PSD staff want to transition into, has to end. It's chummy quid pro quo.

It's illegal to do this in the federal government, and a sharp parent like Helen may want to talk to the FBI office of Municipal Corruption about what potential federal laws are being violated with the misuse of federal money that pours into the pot but goes to unaccounted, non-competitively bidded chums.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2011 12:46 pm

The biggest problem in the Philly Public School District is the incestuousness of any oversight. The PSD is not even as well run as the average large private nonprofit.

WIll the Democratic Machine touch its cash cow, though?

Remember that parents, when you wonder where the money goes. The money gets taken from kids to elect marginal politicians who can't get this money any other way but kick backs from rigged deals. Will Dem parents stand up to their own party for better schools is the $110 million dollar question.

Submitted by Wake Up Philly (not verified) on May 25, 2011 5:23 pm

Helen - I couldn't be there in person, but watched the proceedings on TV. You as usual are right on target! Thank you for having the continual courage, resolution, but most especially our precious children at heart. They are all our children because they are the future leaders and workers of our communities. They will help to make our communities stable, productive and safe to live in.

We all need to continue to fight for their right to FAPE.

I agree with all that you have written and demanded.

Thank you once again for standing for our children!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2011 10:36 pm

Thank ou so much Helen for not being swayed by the "smoke and mirror" tricks that are being presented by the SDP.

Helen Gym for SDP Superintendent !!!!

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