March 14 — 12:49 pm, 2011

Once again, the District proves it is its own worst enemy

The School District’s jaw-dropping decision to terminate Audenried teacher Hope Moffett is just another example of the polarizing style that defines this administration. Whether it’s handling an outspoken young teacher, racial violence at South Philadelphia High School, or parents who disagreed with turnaround policies at West Philadelphia High School, the District has shown the lengths it will go to make a point and its willingness to sacrifice its moral authority to do so. 

But with a political and economic climate that’s just waiting for excuses to underfund schools, has this administration’s leadership failures become a liability to itself and the city? 

Hope Moffett is a young third-year teacher at Audenried High School who, by all accounts, is dedicated to her work and admired by students and colleagues alike. It’s hard to understand why at a time when qualified, effective teachers are hard to come by, the District wants to make headlines by terminating Moffett’s employment after she raised concerns about the District’s turnaround plan for her school.

Consider for example that the District’s turnaround centerpiece, the Promise Academies, opened this school year staffed mostly by new and inexperienced teachers. Almost three-quarters of Promise Academy teachers are first-year teachers or have less than three years experience, according to the Notebook. More experienced teachers largely opted out of the turnaround process. How will Moffett’s termination encourage thoughtful, passionate teachers to come to our hardest-to-staff schools?

Aside from the questionable legal maneuverings, the District’s move toward fast-tracked termination of Moffett also shows zero understanding of a public entity’s responsibility to hear public dissent. As anyone who goes into public service ought to know, our schools are public resources, publicly funded, and ought to be subject to public debate. One would hope that, despite the time and struggle, all of us become better for it. And while not all public servants run to embrace public debate, it’s also clear that this administration seems to reflect a uniquely low level of tolerance for it.

Moffett is just one of a series of examples of the District’s combative management style. The District’s refusal to address civil rights violations against Asian immigrant youth at South Philadelphia High School not only shocked the public, but required federal intervention by the U.S. Dept. of Justice.  At West Philadelphia High School, the District ordered the Inspector General to investigate parents on the School Advisory Council and removed popular principal Saliyah Cruz after the SAC voted in a way that apparently displeased Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. State lawmakers complained after the District suspended five whistle blowers in what appeared to be a central office witch hunt. And parents and community members at Audenried are up in arms over a process that ran roughshod over their concerns.

These things add up at a time when the District most needs school communities, teachers, parents, and students rallying to fight for school funding.

State lawmakers have found the District’s disasters easy fodder to garner support for reducing Philadelphia’s fair share. Gov. Corbett’s budget brings school funding back down to the pre-education funding formula levels when money was based on arbitrary assessments rather than actual need. Philadelphia also suffers more than other districts; our damages constitute a full quarter of the education budget cuts.

But rather than work for a unified front, the District seems go out of its way to take umbrage at the slightest offense, devoting important legal resources, media attention, and political capital to scapegoat and vilify student victims of violence, ordinary parents, its own central office staff, and an earnest teaching professional. 

District officials have complained about poor turnout for a lobbying day in Harrisburg. A Friday rally they organized to protest budget cuts drew a fraction of the support that  Teacher Action Group held with its rally called "We will NOT be intimidated!" Monday, the PFT will host a demonstration in part to denounce the District’s silencing of teachers, a follow-up to their federal lawsuit against terminating Moffett. And although education funding is also on the agenda, the District’s poor leadership and management style is clearly driving turnout to the event. 

To paraphrase New York University professor Diane Ravitch, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can win a war by firing on their own troops. The District, in all its unchecked fury, still seems determined to try.

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