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Commentary: $8 million District slush fund is why we need more than political theater

Ackerman Remarks About 'Job For Life': MyFoxPHILLY.com

It’s business as usual at the School Reform Commission. $629 million budget gap? Pshaw. Public officials demanding oversight? Meh. 

All you have to do is look at the resolutions on the docket for the Monday, June 13 voting meeting. Let’s start with SRC-16, a resolution that sets aside a whopping $8 million for the coming year for what the administration calls “limited contracting authority” (LCA). District officials define it as contracts under $15,000 that would not require SRC review but would go through a staff committee instead. One argument presented was that the SRC had so many resolutions to look at already, it shouldn’t be bothered with contracts of such a low amount.

Hold on a second right there.

It’s stunning to me that the District continues unchallenged with this type of behavior and rhetoric. No one wants to micromanage, but $8 million is an amount equal to the base salaries of more than 100 teachers.

Back in 2006 and 2007, the SRC was clearly concerned about LCA oversight. They adopted two measures in order to put tighter controls on those funds, including lowering the amount to $15,000 from $25,000 and prohibiting departments from using contractors multiple times for the same service that would result in exceeding the stated LCA limit. 

It is simply wrong for the District at this time to urge the SRC to vote for $8 million for LCAs based on convenience and inconsequentiality of small contracts. Instead, the SRC should be asking for a full accounting of spending under the LCAs to determine whether LCA funds were properly disbursed and to ensure that there is no waste or abuse.

One would think that the crippling deficit, a federal IRS investigation, and outcries from city and state officials about the District’s poor financial would put a stop to such shenanigans. But apparently not.

Which brings me to my next point: What exactly is the purpose of the political theater surrounding a memorandum of understanding if stuff like this continues to happen at the District? Elected officials are fond of trotting out words like accountability and oversight, especially in the national spotlight and around budget season. What they forget is that these words require work and the practice of saying NO.

Consider the resolutions up for vote on Monday:

  • $2 million to retain outside counsel, on top of a 38-member, $7.5 million legal office that expanded by $1 million this year.
  • $1.4 million for lease renewals and amendments to educational programs, $157.6 million for “contracts for services” at various schools and locations, and another $10 million for “contracts for materials” at various schools and locations. Have these contracts been thoroughly reviewed as essential priorities?
  • $150,000 for the superintendent’s 2011 summer leadership institute, essentially a few days of school-funded networking. Me? I’d rather have two more teachers working next year.
  • More leadership training? $805,000 to the University of Pennsylvania Center for Educational Leadership; $94,000 to the Enterprise Center; and $75,000 to the Princeton Center.

In the fall of 2006, when then-CEO Paul Vallas revealed a shocking $73 million deficit, the SRC immediately moved into action. They publicly excoriated Vallas for his financial management and seized financial control. They pushed out the CFO at the time, hired Public Financial Management to begin instituting controls, and dramatically put on hold spending. Classrooms suffered cuts but the SRC was able to largely address the deficit through immediately reduced spending. As a result, it made it easier for Parents United and other groups to successfully lobby City Council for more funds. It’s simply baffling that this administration has willfully refused to follow such a commonsense approach.

What's incredibly frustrating is that our schools need and deserve more money from the city and the state. And as shocked as people may be by the $70-$100 million figure put out by the mayor, the failure by city and state officials to oversee the past three years of financial chaos at the District will cost us far more - not just next year but many years down the road. It isn't right to put out the message that we can do this painlessly either. It will be painful. It will result in higher taxes and possibly lost services.

So as a parent with children in this system, it's beyond frustrating to see so much rhetoric, so many political agendas, and not just clear action. Action that breaks rank with the current administration that has completely lost credibility. Action that institutes professional financial oversight through an entity like PICA, rather than through political bodies like Council and the mayor's office, whose attention spans wax and wane with the headlines of the day. Action that demands the SRC rebuke resolutions like those above.

Last week more than 3,000 people received notice that they had lost their jobs. Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, outlined to me the teacher losses across the system: 619 fewer elementary school teachers, among them 115 English teachers, 121 math teachers, and 66 social studies teachers. Our high schools lost 22 biology teachers, 17 chemistry teachers, 3 physics teachers, and 6 general science teachers. We lost 50 art teachers, 8 music teachers, 31 ESL teachers, and 323 special ed teachers.

At the same time, Fox29 caught Superintendent Arlene Ackerman joking before last week's SRC meeting about getting her "job for life" back, and sourly dismissing the idea of making a public statement the day after people lost their jobs. Just say we're short on time, Ackerman told SRC Chair Robert Archie.

We are short on time.

The 2011-12 budget does not represent the interests of children, classrooms, or the state of education in Philadelphia. A moratorium must be put in place on all new contracts, and we need people to challenge the broader elected leadership to hold accountable a District that continues to act with impunity despite all they’ve done wrong.

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Comments (14)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 13, 2011 6:27 am

Helen Gym, you are AMAZING! You are well researched, well spoken and RIGHT ON TARGET!!! I am an employee of the district and a parent of a child in this district and I can tell you that in 20+ years, I have never seen anything as ridiculous as the current circus that is the SDP. I've lost all faith in the leadership of both the SRC and City Council. . I appreciate your diligence and commitment to the children of this city. Don't stop speaking out about the incredible injustice this leadership is doing to the entire school district and it's children!

Submitted by TeachersStandTogether (not verified) on June 13, 2011 6:47 am

I agree. We need Helen Gym in a position of power in our district. She is proof that parents should have a much greater role major decision-making. She belongs on the SRC - or in the superintendent's chair. In fact, perhaps the SRC should include a mandatory spot for a knowledgeable parent (and a real teacher, to pick up Heidi Ramirez's role).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 13, 2011 8:59 am

Principals have cut or dropped 20% of certified librarians' positions (13 of 65 positions) for the 2011-2012 school year. Principals have cut 35% of Library Instructional Media Assistants' positions (9 of 26) for the upcoming school year, as well. This is happening with no public outcry because library staff has not been targeted on this year's list of budget cuts.
The Association of Philadelphia School Librarians made a very strong case for the maintaining of all 2010-2011 library staffing positions in testimony to the SRC in March and April, 2011. http://apsl.wikispaces.com/3-9-2011+SRC+Testimony+%26+docs. The SRC responded favorably to the APSL proposal. However, no one in a position of authority over principals has stepped up to take responsibility for advising principals to maintain this category of positions.
Our students suffer now, and in the future when suburban, magnet school, and middle income contemporaries outstrip them academically and economically.

Submitted by Helen Gym on June 13, 2011 8:09 am

Tonight's SRC meeting at 5 p.m. will have parents and the PFT challenging this budget. We need your voices!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 13, 2011 11:30 am

Thank you Helen for continuing to fight for common sense decisions. It is unfortunate that the district has thrown sense to the wind.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 13, 2011 11:19 am

And that people often comment anonymously, because you know, YOU KNOW, that your job may be in jeopardy (more than it already is...) by speaking the truth, standing up for the kids, and calling the out the School District administration and City government on being the farce that it has become. Political theater doesn't begin to describe it...

It's all about the money. It's not about educating these children, OUR children. And that's the real shame of it all.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on June 13, 2011 11:28 am

I would really like to say I can't believe this, but--with everything that has happened this year--I can believe it! It seems to me that the powers-that-be do just not get it. How can you earmark 8 million dollars for what are essentially extras? Especially with no oversight? If the legal department cannot adequately do their jobs without outside help, fire them and save 7.5 million right there. Get rid of Leadership Conferences and Institutes and let the leaders pay for their own continuing education like teachers do. A district in dire financial straits needs to dedicate all its money to services that DIRECTLY relate to students, not pie-in-the-sky institutes and conferences that are just venues for bigwigs to find their next big job or contract.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 13, 2011 12:38 pm

How many members of the 38-member legal department received lay-off notices last week?

Submitted by Anonymous on June 13, 2011 1:00 pm

I do know that Princeton Center actually provides training/curriculum on Peer Mediation and Mentoring for students to help their own school take on a more positive culture. We are using the program and are really happy with it---just wanted to put in context that program/funding in particular, so people know it's not something that only gets, it's a program in multiple HS (Northeast, Lincoln, UCity)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 13, 2011 1:51 pm

They are getting rid of all the School District Special Education Attorney's, some of whom are very child oriented and want to insure the success of the student. The District intends to contract out special education law defense work at prohibitive costs. The reason being that the personnel costs at 440 will go down, but the general fund expenditures will increase and no one will be the wiser.

Submitted by Terry Simpson (not verified) on June 15, 2011 9:13 pm

Only three of the five PSD lawyers who
handle special ed cases have received layoff notices. You are correct about the cost of using outside lawyers. This shows that the layoff of scores of administrative staff was not about saving money; it was largely about the Superintendent and CFO showing that they could be "tough" managers and make "hard choices."

Submitted by PhillyStandUp (not verified) on June 15, 2011 5:39 pm

Can you be there on Tomorrow?
On Thursday, City Council will make critical decisions about the future of education for Philly's kids. Unfortunately, the needs of our children will be drowned out by the opponents unless we make ourselves heard. As a City, we are in support of City Council finding the money to fund our schools--no matter where it is. We know that our communities will be safer and more productive places if we have quality schools. Council will be feeling pressure from lobbyists. They also need to feel the pressure of a City demanding that they commit to funding our schools.
Be There Thursday! Bring your sign and support of public education.
Thursday, June 16, 2011 - City Council doors will open at 8:15am. Come as soon as you can!
City Hall, Room 400 - Enter at the Northeast corner of City Hall (bring photo ID).
City Council Vote - The battle for funding for our schools and our kids and our city is not over - it’s decision time.
Councilman DiCicco: 215-686-3458
Councilwoman Verna: 215-686-3412
Councilwoman Blackwell: 215-686-3418
Councilman Jones: 215-686-3416
Councilman Clarke: 215-686-3442
Councilwoman Krajewski: 215-686-3444
Counciwoman Quinones-Sanchez: 215-686-3448
Councilwoman Miller: 215-686-3424
Councilwoman Tasco: 215-686-3454
Councilman O'Neill: 215-686-3422
Council-At-Large
Councilman Goode: 215-686-3414
Councilman Greenlee: 215-686-3446
Councilman Green: 215-686-3420
Councilman Kelly: 215-686-3452
Councilman Kenney: 215-686-3450
Councilwoman Brown: 215-686-3438
Councilman Rizzo: 215-686-3440
Tell them we need: Kindergarten, Yellow Bus Service, Accelerated Schools, Early Childhood Education, Small Class Size, Counselors, School Nurses and Art and Music in Our Schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 15, 2011 5:01 pm

Tell them we also need Ackerman and crew to go!!

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