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District contracts: Who's getting paid

By Helen Gym on Jun 2, 2011 11:03 AM

(This post has been updated)

Despite all the budget hoopla, one area consistently downplayed by the School District has been private contracts.

Since the budget hearings began, Parents United  for Public Education has been asking questions and requesting public information on contracts - how much is being paid out and to whom. Weeks ago, tired of the wait, we made our own "right-to-know" request. To the District's credit, they delivered on our request, and we've posted their list of the 2011 year-to-date payments to contractors and vendors here.

If you follow us on Twitter (@ParentsUnitedPA), you would have seen some of the outtakes of our findings. We dubbed our outtakes "fun facts," but the questions here are very serious.

After all, if we’re advocating for increased school funding through taxes and if the SRC/District is going to put on the chopping block essential priorities like full-day kindergarten, free transportation for students, and local schools’ discretionary funds, then we need to make sure we’re holding the District accountable for its own spending practices and priorities.

In my last post or two, I’ve gone over some of the problematic expenses the District and School Reform Commission have approved in the midst of the worst financial crisis in school history. The District doesn't competitively bid more than $200 million in professional services contracts, for example.

For the public, the only information that’s readily made available is the SRC resolutions posted every month. But in fact, the resolutions don’t even begin to give a full picture of the number of vendors getting paid by the District. For example, I couldn’t even find the resolution for the $240,000 spent on Alta Communications, a politically connected marketing and public relations firm. It’s just one piece of the $986,000 spent on PR, governmental, and marketing contracts, this despite the District’s having budgeted $2.86 million for a 20-person communications office.

These contracts include: Alta Communications, $240K; Frontline solutions: $153K; Positive Promotions: $146,534; Jada Creative Communications: $83,572; Maven Inc.: $77K Govt. relations; Eleanor Jean Hendley: $73K; Third Eye Productions: $64,841; Ceisler Jubilerer: $45,000; KSA-Plus communications $22,575; John Callahan and Mark Christy scouting video: $29,605; OMG Center for Collaborative Learning: $28,628; and Radio One Inc.: $22,674.

There are other questionable expenditures here too:

  • This year, the District is spending $8.3 million on the testing subsidiary of CTB McGraw Hill, an increase of 66 percent from the previous year’s $5 million, and more than three times the amount spent in 2009 ($2.6 million). CFO Mike Masch has said the District will cut about $1.5 million from testing contracts, but that hardly makes a dent – and that’s just for one company.
  • Another testing company making out big is Pearson. Its eight subsidiaries  cost the District $1.7 million in FY09, and in FY11 have racked up $3.4 million in fees so far.
  • As I reported before, the District has so far spent $2.2 million on Achieve 3000, a computer learning program that didn't exist two years ago.
  • We may have 1,200 fewer teachers next year, but the payout to Teach For America has more than doubled since 2009, from $301,000 to $668,000 so far in 2011.
  • What exactly did $244,000 buy from Public Financial Management, the organization brought in during the 2007 fiscal crisis to institute budgetary controls and ensure that a similar crisis wouldn’t happen. Last year we paid over $500,000 to PFM. Can we please have this money back?
  • Sterlen Barr, aka No Puff Daddy, gained a $234,000 payment for presentations on health and nutrition. Just to put this in context, in FY2011 Xerox had a $299,000 contract districtwide.
  • $66,686: The fee for the Council of Great City Schools, which recently named Arlene Ackerman the best urban superintendent in America. This amount is a third larger than the $48,000 paid to CGCS in 2009. 

There are other things like the $443,000 spent on the International Center for Leadership in Education or the $383,000 paid to the Gallup Organization for personnel assessments or even the $132,000 to Truffles Caterers. And who can forget the infamous million-dollar turnstiles at District headquarters.

The School Reform Commission approved a budget that failed to uphold things we know work in education. You have to wonder who’s checking on the contracts that never seem to make it to public light.

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Comments (33)

Submitted by Philadelphia taxpayer and parent (not verified) on June 2, 2011 2:43 pm

Wow! This is a tricky time. The School District needs money (?from the city? from the state? from both?) to fund full-day kindergarten, transportation, reasonable class size, libraries, art, music, and other threatened programs. But how can we citizens advocate for more education money when the current budget is bloated with expenditures like these? With the hidden expenses and the current School Reform Commission set-up, how can we taxpayers know where our money is going? How can we trust the process for making financial decisions?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 2, 2011 10:48 pm

Three years ago the SDP hired a greeting card company (minority owned) as book jobber for the school libraries. As a result of the dedicated activity of one community member, that relationship was severed after the first year, much to the benefit of the school children and teachers patronizing the school libraries.

Submitted by RS (not verified) on June 2, 2011 2:12 pm

Thank you so much for your post. Now we can do the research to see how these relationships really work. For years I have thought that the FBI would infiltrate but now I know it's going to be up to us to get the job done. kudos again

Submitted by RS (not verified) on June 2, 2011 2:28 pm

Is there any way that we can know where the vendors worked? There some companies on the list that provide services that I cant imagine the sdp would need

Submitted by RS (not verified) on June 2, 2011 2:10 pm

Is there any way that we can know what services they provided for the district? I am looking at all the companies and there are some that I can't figure out how they would be used by the sdp

Submitted by Helen Gym on June 2, 2011 3:47 pm

You can double check them against the SRC resolutions. If they don't show up, you'll have to make your own right to know request of the District. I felt like I should post the information here so everyone can look at the same document. I too can't pretend like i know every single vendor and what purpose or program they serve.


Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on June 2, 2011 2:51 pm

Thank you for making sure these things see the light of day. Cancelling these bloated, unnecessary contracts would go a long way towards closing the budget gap. Why does the SDP pay an outside contractor to run a cafe at 440--how much is that contract--can't the people there just bring their lunch or order out like everyone else?

Submitted by Rich (not verified) on June 2, 2011 2:38 pm

What a great job Helen. If we just cut out all of the unnecessary contracts, we would not have to lay-off any teachers and most of the turmoil that is reflected on this site would dissipate.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 2, 2011 2:06 pm

Helen Gym for Mayor!

Submitted by Curious (not verified) on June 3, 2011 9:24 am


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 2, 2011 3:22 pm

They spend $8.3 million for a company to make the SAME EXACT TEST EVERY YEAR?

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on June 3, 2011 9:24 am

The tests have to be printed, scored and the data rearranged to tell more lies about schools and their growth, don't forget.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 12:27 am

Excellent detective work.

But why must tax payers be detectives when dealing with a city agency? Something is wrong.

I suspect that the payouts to the private contractors are but the tip of the iceberg of inefficient spending. It bothers me that the School District is asking for a big boost in revenues ($100 million) yet accountability is lacking. A complete and impartial audit is very appropriate and the results should be quickly made public in a widely circulated uncensored format. The School District administration is, afterall, employed by the citizens of Philadelphia and the State of Pennsylvania. They should be accountable to their employers.

All departments of all levels of government should be tightly monitored but in Philadelphia most especially the School District since it is by far the largest single local agency.

One good place to start might be the topic of "alternative schools". Alternative school seems to encompass a host of disparate entities: special schools for physically and mentally handicapped children, special schools for very advanced children, special schools for slow learners, and the term is also used for what is nothing more than Reform School for thugs. There likely are plenty of students who fit into one "alternative" class or another. It would be comforting to know that the money is well spent. If it is, then fine. If not, then stop spending on ineffective programs whether "alternative" or not.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on June 3, 2011 6:18 am

I have to admit to not being able to think in numbers this large - how many of us can honestly comprehend these money amounts?, but I know they are too large for being for nothing. I want to know why 440 has an out side contractor providing lunches. Why are we spending so much on things that produce data we cannot use?
I attended the Saturday SAC meeting and the amount of food there as breakfast was scary. The left overs were taken home by attendees, the centerpieces awarded to random guests, the sheet cake was huge and it was all for a four hour meeting. I half-expected coffee and juices, but the catering was above and beyond.
Everyone who attended even one day of the Principals' conference in August got canvas bags with goodies inside. WHY??
These are the expenditures we need to cut.

Submitted by Helen Gym on June 3, 2011 7:35 am

Any idea if the canvas bag had a name on it? Can you recall the names of other companies that were paid through the principals' conference?

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on June 3, 2011 7:51 am

My bag is right beside me. It's my coverage bag -
There's no name I can find. It says Imagine 2014 and We are ALL Leaders The School District of Philadelphia

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 9:07 am

The district is paying Teach of America over $800,000. Why? There is a hiring freeze for new TFA teachers. Could it be that this money is to train TFA teachers to staff new charter schools at the Renaissance Charter Schools. Why is the district subsiding Mastery, universal and Aspira?

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 9:51 am

TFA has filled positions at Universal's charter for a number of years. TFA is suppose to be a "stop gap" measure. We don't need any TFA or Phila Teaching Fellows if other teachers are laid off. Univ of Penn is also part of the problem. TFA is Penn GSE's "cash cow" and brings Penn an enormous amount of money. GSE also uses their doctoral students to "mentor" TFA even if the "mentors" have only a few years of teaching experience. Once again, the money talks ...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 1:42 pm

I don't think TFA is GSE's "cash cow." In total, the tuition for all of the TFA teachers earning their degree at Penn is less $800,000 million a year (that's assuming every TFA teacher in a cohort goes for a Master's Degree at Penn, which isn't the case). That sounds like a lot, but the program does cost Penn some money and the GSE's total budget is several million, I'm sure. (Even without the Hospitals, Penn's operating budget is well into the Billions).

So to say that less than $800,000 is a "cash cow" to an organization with an overall operating budget of over $6 Billion is really not very accurate.

Also, TFA / Teaching Fellows who are already placed are getting laid off too. TFA is basically just a training and placement agency, in this case. Once hired, teachers from these programs have exactly the same employment relationship with the District as a teacher entering in any other way.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 1:13 pm

The $800,000 goes to TFA (the organization). Univ. of Penn's GSE tuition for TFA teachers is 20% discount. Even with the discount, GSE gets about $3800 per course. Masters or certification, TFA teachers (who get Americorp grants so their out of pocket is much less but GSE still gets the money) contribute significantly to GSE's coffers. This summer, many people will be employed by GSE to run PD for TFA teachers. Again, why now? There are no openings in Philadelphia so no one should be placed. Why are 800 TFAers being trained at GSE? It is very lucrative for Penn and provides considerable funding for doctoral students (e.g. their work hours are as TFA "mentors").

Submitted by Scheherezad (not verified) on June 3, 2011 2:58 pm

TFA is hugely important for Penn. TFA (and the idea of that kind of high teacher turnover) is hugely important in this scam of a "reform" model in Philly. God bless everyone since soon TFA will have its own TeacherU and then what? And soon being a "veteran" teacher in Philly will mean having five years under your backpack. Then what?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 2:47 pm

This is the plan! The inexpensive, recyclable teacher who must answer to an organization that places blind faith in quantifiable data. It's a perfect plan because the ambitious TFA's get their two years in,their masters and then move on. Those who really want to teach grow weary of being treated like simpletons and move on. The art and craft of teaching is no longer taken seriously by anyone except those of us who teach in this manner.

I want to know why Ackerman is constantly credited with raising scores, yet the teachers who did the work are expected to take a pay cut?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 3:29 pm

There are three major factual errors in your post:
1. The money does go to Penn. Direct Deposit straight out of my bank account for two years.
2. Penn GSE has nothing to do with the summer training program. TFA does it in-house at several sites around the country. It's controversial, because TFA doesn't involve any actual schools of education. In Philly, they use the facilities at Temple, but TFA runs all of the actual programming, using mostly TFA alumni as instructors. Penn runs a one-week course in August, employing about 10 instructors, but other Penn GSE has nothing to do with TFA in the summer. There are plenty of critiques of the program, but to say that Penn GSE is involved is objectively false. The summer training and the Penn GSE program are two very separate things. (In fact, there is some criticism that they are so separate that they are not particularly complementary of each other).
3. The 800 TFA teachers being trained in Philadelphia are destined for several regions, including (I think) Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore, D.C., and perhaps one or two others (the exact Institute assignments change every year). Less than 200 will be placed in the Philadelphia area (including Camden, Delaware, and charters in all of those areas).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 10:22 am

Let's not forget, the millions spent on Story Town (for grades K-3) and Elements of Literature, which lasted for only about two years. Those programs were trashed and most of the items now sit in a closet somewhere, or where TRASHED if the school was taken over (shout to Young Scholars for throwing away good materials because "we won't be using this"). Ironic that Ackerman's initiative is Imagine 2014, and she purchased Imagine it? Doesn't she sit on the board for SRA, the publisher of Imagine it? She can care less about children, teachers, and schools (unless they are Promise Academies). Ackerman is only concerned with what will BENEFIT her politically and financially.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 11:44 am

uhm.. SRA is a division of McGraw Hill. I highly doubt that Ackerman sits on their board of trustees. Lets not just throw baseless accusations out there. Do you have any proof of this?

Submitted by Rich (not verified) on June 3, 2011 11:56 am

WOW. Back in the day (80"s) we were given SRA Corrective Reading kits. They were so bad we never used them. The kids were ready to throw us out of the classroom when we used them in our reading classes.

You see, we had spoiled them with the AUTHENTIC READING strategies we were taught to use at the Temple Reading Clinic. You see, a great story, article, book or non-fiction work that is "interesting to the kids" along with a good teacher who brings it to life, asks Socratically designed questions, and then poses some deep thinking questions is WHAT WORKS.....

That is if you are trying to build reading comprehension and undrstanding of the world around them....

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 11:09 am

Thanks so much for providing this list. Does anyone know why we make payments to other school districts, like $25,000 to Chicago and $82,000 to Easton? I also wonder about the disparity in payments to charter schools. I ran some of the numbers (payment/# of students) and came up with numbers ranging from $7,000 to almost $11,000 per student.

Looking at just this list of payables (and it's only vendors who received more than $20,000 in the fiscal year), I'm sure most of us could cut more than enough fat to balance the budget for next year with no new taxes and no increased funding from the city or state.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2011 12:52 pm

Charters get extra for students with an IEP - same as the School District. So, the more students with an IEP, the more money.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 5, 2011 11:35 am

The money paid to the Chicago Public Schools is an annual software license fee for its Virtual Pre-K program.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 5, 2011 11:09 am

Looking forward, why is the superintendent requesting $150,000 (in proposed resolution B-28 on June SRC agenda) to fund her "Superintendent's 2011 Leadership Conference" to be held August 15-19 "to provide professional development, material resources, technology supports, printing and production services, rentals and catering?" Who are the recipients of these funds? In the recent past, rather than use retired principals and other PSD veteran leaders, the PSD paid outside consultants and speakers. Also, a considerable amount was spent on catering.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 5, 2011 1:50 pm

Time to get out the picket signs. Every meeting she calls should be picked.

Submitted by Kate Sannicks (not verified) on June 8, 2011 9:34 pm

I've often wondered myself about the coincidence of Imagine 2014/Imagine It; that's how I came to this article (I Googled the two terms together). I would certainly hope, however, that it boils down to be Ms. Ackerman's ego at a well-turned witticism, and not any insanely blatant conflict-of-interest situation. Given the pot she's stewing in right now, that would just turn up the flame!

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