SRC wrestles with contracts, prepares to announce superintendent finalists
by Benjamin Herold on Jun 21 2012 Posted in Latest news
by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
The School Reform Commission continued its juggling act Thursday night, combing through millions of dollars worth of District contracts while preparing to announce finalists for the city’s vacant superintendent position Friday.
Commissioner Wendell Pritchett said that a list of about 100 candidates for the District's top job has been winnowed down to two finalists.
“They are both very strong candidates,” Pritchett said. “We hope to make a decision very soon.”
First, though, the public will get the chance to meet the candidates and ask questions. The District has scheduled two “community engagement forums,” to be held at District headquarters at 6:30 p.m. next Monday, June 25, and Tuesday, June 26.
After making the announcement, the SRC parsed and ultimately approved dozens of contracts, including one-year extensions for alternative education providers who run schools for dropouts and near-dropouts. The extensions had been backed by student activists.
Public testimony was focused on concerns from representatives of the Coalition of Philadelphia Special Education Advocates about how the various reforms both proposed and already underway will affect students with disabilities.
In the short term, advocates said, turnover in District staff and a plan to push more decision-making down to the school level is sowing confusion and fear.
“We are at a loss to understand … how to direct parents who call us with concerns,” said Sonja Kerr, the director of disability rights with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
And Jennifer Lowman, senior staff attorney with the Education Law Center, raised cautions about the District’s long-term plan to expand the number of charter schools in the city.
“It has to be very clear to those operators that they must enroll and educate all children,” Lowman said.
Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon said the District hopes to hire a new deputy in charge of specialized instructional services “within the next few weeks.” And Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said they would hear soon the results of an ongoing audit of the costs associated with out-of-District placements for special education students.
The SRC also agreed to focus an upcoming Strategy, Policy and Priorities meeting on special education.
The commission then approved a number of big-ticket expenditures, but not before peppering District staff with detailed questions and requests about everything from facilities leases to contracts for locally grown produce for school lunches.
Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky expressed resistance to a resolution authorizing the District’s “Executive Management Team” to spend up to $8 million on “limited contracts” of no more than $15,000 apiece. The so-called “LCAs” then do not require further SRC approval.
Actual District expenditures on LCAs have ranged from roughly $1 million in 2009 to $4.5 million in 2011, Dworetzky said.
“Why, for this coming year, when everything is so tight, should we be setting aside $8 million?” he asked.
The commissioners ultimately approved a scaled-back authorization of $4 million.
They also approved $2.9 million in new money to pay unexpected costs for outside lawyers used during the past school year.
Chief Counsel Michael Davis said that layoffs of District lawyers ended up costing the District heavily; in one instance, the District paid about $1.3 million for work done by external lawyers that would have cost about $250,000 if done in-house.
“We had to lay off 50 percent of staff, which included attorneys who handle these matters that do not stop coming in,” Davis said.
Unanticipated investigations and audits, including an ongoing look into possible cheating on state standardized tests, were another cause of the last-minute request, he said.
After some confusion, the SRC approved $23 million in contracts for nine alternative education providers, which members of Youth United for Change lobbied hard to preserve last year.
“I hope they stay open for a lot longer and continue helping … students like us who have been pushed out of school,” said Eli-Akim Hicks, a YUC member and student at El Centro de Estudiantes in Kensington. YUC members had also appeared before City Council, presenting a survey of students who attend those schools.
The SRC also proposed action to ensure that no District vendors owe back taxes that would come to the District.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Dworetzky said.