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Community implores SRC to fight for more money

By Dale Mezzacappa on Feb 17, 2012 12:59 AM
Photo: Benjamin Herold

District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen at Thursday's SRC meeting.

Speaker after speaker at a marathon School Reform Commission meeting Thursday night urged the five members to fight for more money for the District rather than passively accept deep cuts from the state.

"My 2nd grader cannot afford eight years of a governor who is going to continue to cut public education," said Ann Gemmell, a Meredith school parent, speaking of Gov. Corbett.

Other speakers at the six-hour meeting echoed that theme. Many of them cited a report by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC) that said that, in addition to the cuts, the District lost tens of millions of dollars by borrowing money through toxic interest rate swaps pushed by big banks.They demanded that the SRC fight to get that money back from the banks, which were bailed out by taxpayers.

"Use your bully pulpit," said Seth Kulick, a parent and member of Occupy Philly. "Do you stand with the 1 percent or the 99 percent?"

The meeting saw the SRC sign on a high-priced consulting firm for an intensive, five-week engagement to help both narrow its budget gap and reorganize its management.

But before that the SRC got an earful from speakers about both threatened school closings and the impact of the relentless cuts. The District, faced with a massive shortfall, has made multiple rounds of cuts from schools and must find another $39 million in reductions before the end of this fiscal year.

Sonja Kerr of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia said that threatened cuts of psychologists, who evaluate students for special education services, will be devastating for students with disabilities by keeping them waiting even longer for proper services. And cutting nursing services "is a recipe for disaster," she said, especially in a district with high rates of asthma and Type 1 diabetes.

"My school is going under," said Baseerah Watson, a senior at Sayre High School and a member of Philadelphia Student Union. Among other things, it has seen an "increase of unqualified teachers."

She asked, "What are you doing to fight for more money for our District?"

Saying that 70 percent of Pennsylvania corporations avoid paying income taxes, retired teacher (and Notebook board member) Ron Whitehorne said that the SRC should challenge "the message that there is no money to restore education funding.... We reject that the community has to give up more."

Commissioners didn't answer Watson and Whitehorne directly, but SRC Chair Pedro Ramos spoke later about how the SRC is working to restore stability and consistency to the District in difficult financial circumstances.

"The proposed state budget is flat; city level, there is some growth there. ... With this economy we have to budget as if our revenues are not going up," Ramos said. "Certainly they are not going up as fast as expenditures."

He also suggested that people "make their voices heard about taxes. At the end of the day, a lot of tax policy is driven by what elected officials believe voters are willing or not willing to pay," Ramos said. Corbett has stood firm against raising any taxes to balance his budget, relying entirely on cuts.

As for the losses through the credit default swaps, District officials have said that the PBPC report is inaccurate. Michael Masch, now an adviser to Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen, said that while it paid more than $80 million in fees over two years to get out from under these bad deals, this was done through a financing plan that saved money.

Regardless of the actual cost to the District of swaps, the clear message from speakers was that the SRC must take a more prominent role in issues around funding equity.

"There is a desire for your leadership around funding, said Brian Armstead, the director of civic engagement for the Philadelphia Education Fund. He urged the SRC to help organize a "coordinated campaign" to win education funding with the mayor as well as other cities and school districts.

There were 44 registered speakers, almost all of whom actually spoke. The public comments ended at 9:52 p.m., more than four hours after the meeting started. Only then did the SRC take up a full complement of resolutions, and on several of those they accepted comments or questions from members of the dwindling audience. The meeting ended at 11:30 p.m.

Among the resolutions was one to spend more than $1.4 million to hire Boston Consulting Group for five weeks of "intense" work starting immediately to help design a decentralized academic model, identify operational savings, and find new reductions and efficiencies. The firm was selected from four that were interviewed in response to a District search.

Knudsen said the firm had extensive experience with troubled school districts, adding that work needed to start immediately and be completed by late March in order to guide the District's budget process.

Although the resolution didn't specify this, Ramos said that he was confident that the District could raise the cost of this contract from "philanthropic sources." Until funds are secured, it will be paid for from the operating budget, he said.

Beyond the cost, speakers from the audience raised concerns that they didn't know what decentralization meant, that it could lead to more inequities, and that the SRC chose this direction without public input.

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett said he agreed "we must be very careful how we do decentralization, we have to be very fair."

Commissioner Lorene Cary said her understanding was that the initiative was to "acknowledge where we already are" with so many charter schools and other options such as Promise Academies "rather than making a decision to go further." 

Other issues that came up at the meeting:

  • Representatives from Philadelphia Black Clergy said the religious community should be involved in the superintendent search; other speakers said there need to be teachers, people who understand special education, and other community representation on the search committee

  • Students from Youth United for Change urged the SRC to alter its approach to discipline by clarifying the arrangement with the Philadelphia Police Department to minimize arrests in schools and adopting such programs as positive behavior supports and restorative justice initiatives, which stress prevention rather than punishment.

  • Officials from the technology and information offices showcased all the resources available online to students, teachers, and parents, including individual student record, and textbooks, ad college planning tools. SRC members were concerned, however, about the "digital divide" and asked for a study of how lack of internet access was impacting families' use of the system.

  • There was more angst on the part of SRC members about being asked to retroactively approve contracts that have already been executed. There were several on the agenda, and they all passed, but Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky voted against them. "I don't think we can work this way," he said.

Comments (44)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2012 4:46 am

What is the role of Knudson, Masch and Nunery if the Boston Consulting Group is going to do what they are being paid - I think collectively over the equivalent of $650,000/year plus benefits - to do? Also, do you know why the fact that Universal Co. is not paying a dime for Audenried and Vare was not addressed by the SRC? Why did Universal get to keep all of Audenried's computers/technology?
This would pay for both the consulting group and the salaries of Knudson, Masch and Nunery.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2012 7:01 am

Gee--could it be that the fix is in for Gamble et al??

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2012 7:33 am

Gee--could it be that the fix is in for Gamble et al??

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2012 4:03 am

This was reported by the Inquirer but not the Notebook:

The Revs. Terrence Griffith and Kevin Johnson said they were upset by their lack of voice in district decisions, including the superintendent search. Johnson, the parent of public school students, raised concerns that the district is now being run by "Center City interests."

I heard the speeches. Kevin Johnson is the minister at Ackerman's former church. Johnson has close ties to Ackerman. While I have am also very concerned about a city run for "center city" since I do not work near CC, don't live CC and my children don't go to school in CC, I'm also very leery of the voices of Ackerman hold overs. Ackerman is responsible for the mess we live with today. She is also responsible, along with Archie, for the fact that Universal Co. is not paying for Audenreid, nor all the computer equipment they took, and Vare. Ackerman devotees need to also come clean rather than paint all of her opposition as "Center City."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2012 9:12 am

The $80 million in fees were CANCELLATION fees for these shady swaps!! Marketed in God knows what way by God knows who. Masch was probably ill-advised or out-matched by very sophisticated Wall St engineering and marketing tools and financial management - ( I am giving him the benefit of the doubt)

Cancelling the swaps absolutely saved money - but WHY pay cancellation fees to banks that CRASHED our economy? The reason these deals became such a liability was because interest rates PLUMMETED. WHY did they plummet?? Banking GREED followed by the 2008 economic meltdown followed by the financial industry's power & influence to keep interest rates so low - the lower the interest rate is for them the more money they make on student loans, credit cards and more. TOTAL Inside JOB!!! If our "leaders" are going to bend over for the 1%, then what is the point of having them? The SRC needs to get the millions back and/or STOP DOING BUSINESS with these banks!

The report is very readable - at Penn Budget and Policy center's website - www.pennbpc.org

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 19, 2012 2:09 pm

No, he just made a stupid decision. You don't take risks like that.

Submitted by rms (not verified) on February 19, 2012 3:15 pm

it would be very difficult to predict that interest rates would be at this low of a level. It was the equivalent to locking in your home oil prices in the beginning of the year and then the price of oil go to its lowest level ever. the cancellation fee however could be fought out in court and won by the sdp

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2012 6:10 pm

What evidence, if any, do you have that the SRC isn't complicit in all this abuse? I agree, it is all disgraceful to say the very least.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2012 7:51 pm

They have to pay some idiots from Boston over a million dollars to DECENTRALIZE the curriculum?

And here I thought I got training to become a teacher. It's demoralizing to work for an employer who doesn't trust me to do my job.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 18, 2012 8:17 am

It is sad because we had a decentralized curriculum for many years. It was destroyed by Paul Vallas when he was imposed upon us and he created the "marching of ants curriculum" that we now despise and which prevents teachers from doing their jobs well.

That is why we always had a "core curriculum" and teachers added and adjusted it as needed. It allowed for flexibility, electives, project based learning and creative teaching. We also had school based management and shared decision-making before the state takeover of our schools. We also allowed schools to create their own small learning communities which fit the needs of their schools, etc., etc., etc.

It is called "collaborative leadership" and the hiring of the Boston Group is alarming. All of my actual experience with supposed outside experts and my studies of the actual research on school governance and effective leadership have shown me that these so called "outside experts" really know very little and have very little expertise.

I hate to be a naysayer but I will bet you that these "outside experts" turn out to be yet another bunch of "know-littles" and another waste of our money. I'll bet that none of them ever taught in an urban school.

The answers my friends lie in the hearts and the minds of those who actually do work in the trenches of urban schools, and those who have worked for most of their professional lives in schools. That is where the true expertise lies. We know how to decentralize schools. We have done it for years.

Submitted by rms (not verified) on February 19, 2012 4:40 pm

the people in boston are probably not idiots, the idiots are right here. the decentralization is not about curriculum but about infrastructure and saving money over many years. Here is one example -- how much money would the school save by installing solar panels? Eliminating mailings? Buying ipads vs. buying textbooks? I dont know buy they would be able to figure it out and decide if that is the best use of money. remember it costs a lot of money running the facilities and the district is not always very efficient.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 20, 2012 11:03 am

Now, now, all this effort and expense must surely be about preserving someones "intelligence"... Hire an "expert". It's about politically correct ways to cut expenses. How do we cut middle management, streamline processes to meet those State requirements? How do we get something to be done in a different way? It's easier to have an "outside agent".

Submitted by tom-104 on February 17, 2012 9:19 pm

Everyone should do a Google search of the Boston Consulting Group which the SRC is paying $1.5 million for five weeks of work reorganizing the School District.

For example, the Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Consulting_Group) on BCG opens, "The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a global management consulting firm with offices in 42 countries. It is recognized as one of the most prestigious management consulting firms in the world." Note the list of current and former employees.

Or see this experience of a former BCG employee:
"Opinion: The story BCG offered me $16,000 not to tell
The city was strange and the society unnerving, but what disturbed me the most about my experience was my job as a business consultant." at http://tech.mit.edu/V130/N18/dubai.html

We are apparently an experiment of the 1% in what they see as a corporate takeover of public schools to see if our company can be more efficient at turning out widgets!

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on February 18, 2012 5:45 am

I wonder if Rutgers Camden under Pritchett will hire the Boston Consulting Group to determine how they will merge with Rowan... That could leave to Pritchett losing his high profile job!

Submitted by Sam G. (not verified) on February 18, 2012 8:46 am

Great Story, Tom----I totally agree--we all better be very careful or we're dead as dirt.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 5:04 pm

Very interesting links. Thank you for posting. Interesting list of former employees that really make you think.....

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2012 11:00 pm

And this world-class consulting firm has earned fame for their theory that "the more you do a task, the less expensive it becomes to do."

HA HA HA HA HA HA

OK-- let me try this: the more a student learns, the less they have to study. There -- I am famous now!!!!

Submitted by tom-104 on February 18, 2012 6:01 pm

Still Separate, Still Unequal: Racism, Class and the Attack on Public Education, with Brian Jones

http://vimeo.com/36905750

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 19, 2012 11:13 am

It's all very good that the speakers let the SRC know how crippling the current budget cuts are; however, Gov. Corbutt has not proposed further cuts for the next fiscal year to K-12, rather to higher ed., such as Temple. In addition the SRC is not a lobbying entity... come on folks, complain to your State reps on this score. The request to the SRC should've been for radically better and more transparent management of current resources. Why use so many hours making misdirected demands?

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 19, 2012 12:39 pm

 Ms. Cheng...it's not either/or.   The SRC is the body charged with governing our schools.   As such they should be demanding adequate funding rather than simply administering austerity, People have been mobilizing to go to Harrisburg, lobby state reps. etc. as well.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 19, 2012 12:48 pm

But what power do they really have here? I would think they would need to first responsibly "reorganize" to see if austerity is truly unavoidable, before they would be able to bring a "foolproof" case to the State.

Submitted by tom-104 on February 19, 2012 12:39 pm

This is so wrong. Do you really think "complaining to State reps" means anything? That would be hours misdirected.

The SRC did make it very clear that what the community wants makes no difference to them in the way they passed resolutions to advance privatization after four hours of speeches defending public schools. The speeches included a State Rep asking for a moratorium on charters and a leader of Black clergy calling on support for public schools. As far as I am concerned, the state treats Philadelphia like a colony to be exploited but not developed, and the SRC is the colonial administrator of the schools.

But the important thing is that we heard each other. People must be encouraged to speak out in whatever forum there is even if it is making no difference to the powers that be. If we passively accept what is going on, public schools are done!

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 19, 2012 12:11 pm

Perhaps you are right: it might also be a waste of time, because our State reps all represent Philly; and those that support Corbutt are not here. We can however "up" the pressure on our dear Philly reps by expressing our extreme distress, and they might attempt to cut deals with the nonPhilly reps? I just wonder if maybe the speakers might have wanted to organize their testimony beforehand so that important things would not be slipped in unnoticed by the weary majority (not you of course - thanks for your vigiliance here) by the SRC.

Submitted by Sam G. (not verified) on February 19, 2012 7:09 pm

Time to FIGHT--no more talking, imploring, asking, begging etc---what crap, all of this is !!!! Glad others are feeling the same way I am and have for a long time. These are NOT reasonable people and we better get used to it.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 19, 2012 12:22 pm

Finally (and regarding transparency), I agree with the commenters that are disturbed by the expensive hiring of the BCG. Who are these "philanthropic sources" who would be interested in paying for this; and why was funding not secured FIRST before hiring BCG? It is beginning to look like "same old" practices as the former SRC.

Submitted by rms (not verified) on February 19, 2012 4:23 pm

It was said at the SRC meeting that all donors would be made public

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 19, 2012 7:34 pm

That is good. Certainly they must already have had the philanthropic sources in mind?

Submitted by tom-104 on February 19, 2012 3:08 pm

Chicago parents stand up for teachers under attack
http://tinyurl.com/83jx7qt

Chicago Parents, Students Occupy Piccolo Elementary, School Targeted For 'Turnaround'
http://tinyurl.com/6qz7rpf

Still Separate, Still Unequal: Racism, Class and the Attack on Public Education, with Brian Jones
http://vimeo.com/36905750

Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on February 20, 2012 1:22 pm

When will the new list of schools to be "renaissanced" be announced? All year we have heard Feb. 20th and the SD website also says Feb. 20th. Why do teachers have to adhere to timelines if the School District Administration and the SRC do not?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 1:16 pm

Yes, good question! Will site selection be delayed again this year too? I am wondering whether or not I will have a job come June. It was absolutely terrible last year. I am hoping that with all of the extra money that they are spending that they can finally get their acts together and let people know where they stand. I was a nervous wreck last summer and not looking forward to another summer of this nonsense.

Heh, we're still "waiting" for those lesson plan templates too!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 2:30 pm

The stress that the district will put it's workers through this summer will dwarf that which was last summer.. This year no one will be exempt.. been working 25 years? think you're safe from stress? Think only the young teachers will be impacted by the mismanagement? nope.. not this year.. this year we ALL will feel it..

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 2:24 pm

What isn't fair is the fact that the teachers must "tolerate" this nonsense, and yet, are in fear of being written up at the slightest provocation.
We must not stand for this incompetence! This is part of the reason why the district is failing so miserably. They miraculously find money to fund other projects, yet could care less about their teachers or students for that matter. Eventually people will wake up and see the charters for what they are --A SCAM. Until then, I do not have another 10 years to reinvent myself and start all over from the beginning. Where is our union? What are they doing about this? Everytime you call, they never know the answers! How much longer are we going to allow this to continue?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 2:45 pm

Where are you getting your information from?

Submitted by One of the Good Ones (not verified) on February 20, 2012 3:18 pm

STOP trying to incite panic!!!

Submitted by Raheem (not verified) on February 20, 2012 3:18 pm

I agree with you. Panicking and freaking out accomplishes nothing - NOTHING. Just keep protesting and reminding the politicians that it is election year - that should help.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 5:56 pm

They're talking about just shutting down the school district. Are they going to? No, but that should be a sign of how crazy things are about to get.

Anyone who got laid off last year is getting laid off again. There's really no reason to think that won't happen. And everyone who made it through last year's layoff will make it through this year's.

Submitted by Mark (not verified) on February 20, 2012 4:38 pm

May not be safe from "stress," but if you're in your 4th year and over, you have tenure and needn't worry about your job. And I doubt that there will be any more layoffs in the schools - there's noone left to layoff at this point.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 5:24 pm

They're going to try anyway.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 5:56 pm

Counselors and school psychologists may be next on the chopping block.

Submitted by Sam G. (not verified) on February 20, 2012 6:15 pm

I know for sure that counselors in my school NEVER counsel kids. All they do is paperwork all day every day.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2012 10:51 pm

Many elementary and middle school counselors do the required paperwork, teach during prep periods and try to fit in time to actually counsel kids. The situation varies from school to school.

Submitted by 4od, 4 demand (not verified) on February 22, 2012 5:43 am

It depends on every school. For example, my kids are very lucky to have counselors that really take care of them, when needed.

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