HARRISBURG — A year that has been hard on Pennsylvania's public school budgets, particularly in the state's poorest districts, could be followed by an even tougher year.
The administration of Gov. Tom Corbett is preparing a budget proposal Tuesday that will address a projected deficit, the state government's fourth in a row. And many lawmakers believe the Republican will press for more cuts to public school funding just a year after he and the GOP-controlled Legislature leveled the biggest school aid reduction in at least several decades to help close a multibillion-dollar shortfall.
Corbett's budget unveiling comes at a time when school districts' costs for pensions, salaries and health care are rising, and computer and textbook purchases and routine maintenance are being put off. Language, tutoring, arts and athletics programs are shrinking in many districts, while class sizes are growing.
It also comes as lawmakers warn Corbett that he needs to come up with a plan to deal with a growing number of school districts that could run out of money to pay bills, as impoverished Chester Upland, near Philadelphia, already did.
For now, many district officials are giving a gloomy outlook. Local tax revenues are stagnant, deficits are looming, reserves are shrinking and property tax increases are on the drawing board for next year's budgets — along with the possibility of more painful cutbacks.
"I just hope (Corbett and state lawmakers) look, at a minimum, to level funding and we'll see if we can get by on that for another year," said Bronson Stone, the superintendent of the approximately 900-student Susquehanna Community School District in northeastern Pennsylvania. "But any further reduction after the massive hit last year, it's uncalled for and we need a set of priorities in this state."
The possibility of more school funding cuts has suburban Pittsburgh parent and Woodland Hills school board member Tara Reis "panic-stricken. I'm beyond afraid. And I'm an optimistic person."
Last year, Corbett and the Legislature approved cuts in aid that, as a percentage, had the effect of drawing the most money away from the poorest districts because they tend to rely more heavily on state aid.
Administration officials have declined to answer questions about Corbett's upcoming budget proposal, although revenues are lagging projections this year and they say the rising costs for pensions, debt and health care will contribute to an estimated deficit of well over $500 million next year.
In testimony last week in front of the Senate Education Committee, Education Secretary Ron Tomalis criticized the state's past school funding practice for not diverting state dollars from school districts with shrinking enrollments to those that are growing.
Tomalis also has said that the growth of teachers' ranks in recent years is out of step with dropping public school enrollments statewide, and has suggested that school employees' collective raises of more than $1 billion since the recession began is excessive.
School funding is especially on lawmakers' minds after a federal judge had to order Corbett to send an advance to the Chester Upland district after teachers pledged to work unpaid and district officials warned that they would have to shut schools down.
All told this year, Corbett cut about $860 million, or more than 10 percent, from aid that supports public school instruction and operations.
According to an Associated Press analysis of state data on school budgets, attendance and income, school districts cut their budgets by a total of 3 percent in this school year, or $414 per student, compared with last year. That's a total of about $732 million.
Those reductions were deepest in poorer districts.
School districts that are in the bottom half of districts in average personal income reduced per-student spending by more than three times as much as the districts in the top half of personal income, according to AP's analysis.
That translates to a reduction of $696 per student, or 5 percent, to $13,271 in the poorest half of school districts, versus a reduction of $192 per student, or 1 percent, in the wealthier half of districts to $14,569.
The spread was more extreme on the farthest edges of the income spectrum.
In the 20 poorest districts, where average income is $24,860, per student spending dropped by 7 percent, or $1,000, to $13,077. In the 20 wealthiest districts, where average income is $108,985, per student spending actually rose almost 1 percent, or $149, to $17,723.
In Windber Area School District in southwestern Pennsylvania's coal country, average income is below $32,000 and the district is facing a $1.6 million deficit, or about 10 percent, next year after slashing its budget by 15 percent, one of the highest percentage reductions in the state this year.
Its elementary, middle and high schools regularly receive the state's Keystone Achievement Awards for demonstrating sustained academic achievement, but Superintendent Rick Huffman wondered how Windber is supposed to keep pace with wealthier districts.
"If the playing field was unequal before, we're not even sure there's a playing field left," Huffman said.
Susquehanna Community School District trimmed its full-day kindergarten program down to part-day as part of a 7 percent budget reduction this year. Average income is about $27,000 in the district, where schools also are regular Keystone Achievement Award recipients. Already, Stone, the superintendent, is projecting a minimum $800,000 shortfall, or 6 percent, next year that it may fill with its cash reserves.
In York, one of the state's poorest districts with average income of $25,000, teachers found themselves with larger classes and additional responsibilities or shuffled around to new positions to cover for laid-off colleagues after a 10 percent budget cut.
In Woodland Hills, which cut its budget by 9 percent, Tara Reis' two children, 5th- and 6th-graders, each have several more children in their classroom this year. One class rose from 21 to 25, and the other rose by 24 to at least 28 to 30, Reis said.
At the Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in Philadelphia, parents are supplying pens, pencils and paper for a school where a 35 percent budget cut claimed a slew of jobs, student-advancement programs and big plans from an active parent community, said Rebecca Poyourow, a parent of two there.
Now, she said, kindergarten teachers are exhausted at the end of the day, the principal is covering for the laid-off bus monitor and no one has time to work on educational-improvement strategies while they're just trying to keep things running.
"It has been such a well-functioning school with such high teacher and student satisfaction that it's so disheartening and depressing this year to see it unraveling while we're fighting so hard to fix it," Poyourow said.
Harrisburg, cited by lawmakers as one of the state's most financially troubled school districts, is facing its third straight deficit after two years of budget cuts that included closing several school buildings and eliminating 500 jobs, or almost one-third of the remaining 1,100-strong staff, business manager Jeff Bader said.
For now, the increase in class sizes has been somewhat muted because of a shrinking enrollment, he said. Officials in the district, where average income is about $29,000 and property tax rates are among the highest in the state, can foresee $1.5 million in higher costs, or about 6 percent, next year from rising pension and debt obligations.
Employee salaries and health care insurance costs also could rise, depending on the outcome of negotiations with the labor union, along with utility and fuel costs, Bader said. There are no easy answers for how to pay for it all.
"We've gone past cutting the programs that are nice but not essential," Bader said. "We've gone past cutting extra expenses that aren't necessary. We've gotten ourselves down to the level (where) there's no extras out there." -- (AP)
At a town hall meeting in Philadelphia held at the city’s Museum of Art, Gov. Tom Corbett made a statement that his numerous critics say is in total opposition to a newly funded building project.
At the meeting, which was hosted by radio personality Dom Giordano, Corbett said he would build no new prisons.
“When it comes to the construction of prisons, not only have I not added new prisons, I’ve stopped the building of prisons,” said the governor. “Forty percent of every tax dollar you spend goes to education in Pennsylvania. Right now over $9 billion goes to K-12. It is the highest state funding has ever been in the history of Pennsylvania.”
In October, Corbett signed off on an extensive legislative package aimed at reducing recidivism and the high cost of incarceration. Corbett said that “it was time to start thinking smarter about how the state incarcerates defendants and that the answer isn't always building new prisons.”
But on Monday, Nov. 19, seven members of a grassroots organization known as DecarceratePA held a protest blocking the entrance to the construction site of two new prisons right beside SCI Graterford. The organization is calling for the state to stop the construction of the new prisons and to reinvest the money, more than $600 million, in communities; as well as calling for an end to mass incarceration, and a reduction of the prison population.
“We blocked the entrance to the construction site using school desks and a mock-up of a little red school house to illustrate the point we’re trying to make. The state is spending over $400 million on this project, money the state doesn’t have to throw around,” said Thomas Dichter, spokesman for the group. “Our message is this money should be used for community reinvestment, for education, housing and social services, services that Governor Corbett has cut funding for. He eliminated general assistance for needy families, yet can fund the construction of new prisons. This just shows a lack of reality. He stated at a town hall meeting that he wouldn’t build new prisons and signed off on prison reform. He’s not about prison reform. What we’re doing is putting the Pennsylvania prison system on trial.”
In 2011, the Corbett Administration halted construction of a $200 million prison construction project in Fayette County that would have housed 2,000 inmates, but it proceeded with prison construction projects in Centre County and at SCI Graterford, The Corbett Administration agreed to pay Walsh Construction and Heery International $315.8 million to design and build a facility capable of housing 4,100 offenders on the Graterford State Prison grounds. The total cost of the project was estimated at $365 million.
Dichter said the new construction represents an expansion of mass incarceration in Pennsylvania and a continuation of policies that lock people up instead of giving the communities the resources they need to thrive. The money used to build these prisons is money that is being stolen from the schools, healthcare and re-entry programs, social services, and the environment, Dichter said.
“Corbett said he wants to shrink the prison system — so why is he expanding it?” Dichter asked. “We would like to see more legislators from Philadelphia on board with this, since Philly residents are over-represented in the state’s prison population. These projects are in the early stages, so it’s not too late to pull the funding for them and reinvest the money where it’s most needed.”
Among the projects related to incarceration that lost funding under the Corbett Administration was a successful program for ex-offenders called Philly ReNew. State Senator Anthony H. Williams managed to get the program a $50,000 grant to keep the program operating for a while longer. Philly ReNew began operations in 2008 and took in 150 men a year, ex-offenders from not only city detention facilities but also state and federal inmates who were being released. People who were non-violent offenders, violent offenders, both men and women and, sex offenders were assisted in putting their lives back together.
“If state government does not pay on the front end, then we will continue to pay $30,000 to $40,000 per year per individual on the back end, and by they way, they will be younger and in prison longer,” said Williams. "That is an unsustainable economic model for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Governor Tom Corbett signed a House Bill designed to help financially distressed school districts and ensure education for the children who live in those communities. The bill is called the Financial Recovery Legislation for Schools.
The law establishes a set course of action that will help guide financially distressed school districts back onto solid economic ground. Under the law, the state will provide financial aid as well as management assistance.
“Any kind of school reform or school rescue has to be, first and foremost, about the students,” Corbett said. “This bill provides the framework for the state Department of Education to intercede and work with local officials to help reconstruct a failing district while making sure the students in that district still receive an education.
“This bill is also about saving the educations of students when the system has failed them. The state constitution guarantees every child an education, and we intend to see that obligation fulfilled. The total cost of implementing this bill is, at present, just under $6 million. The cost of not acting is to lose a generation of young people to a failed system.”
The Chester Upland School District is among districts across that state that currently meets the criteria to be declared distressed. The law will allow the secretary of education to declare districts meeting certain criteria as distressed and to appoint a chief recovery officer, who will be charged with developing a financial recovery plan. By implementing the plan, the districts are eligible for long-term, interest-free loans.
Solicitor Leo Hackett said once Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis officially declares Chester Upland distressed, a series of events will play out.
“After the declaration is made and a chief recovery officer is appointed, the school board will have 14 days to determine whether it will work with the officer to develop the financial recovery plan,” he said. “Once an officer is appointed at Chester Upland, the officer will have 30 days to develop the recovery plan.
Presumably, there’s some discussion with the board and the district on what’s in that recovery plan.
“At the end of the 30-day period, he submits it to the board. If the plan is accepted, Tomalis must sign off on it before it is implemented. If the board declines to work with the officer, Tomalis can petition the courts to place Chester Upland under receivership to implement a plan.”
Chester Upland recently reached a tentative agreement to settle a pair of lawsuits it filed against the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The settlement called for the state to relieve Chester Upland of millions of dollars it owes and provide an additional $9.7 million in funding for the 2012–2013 school year. A hearing for final approval is scheduled for Aug. 15.
It was billed as “The Philadelphia Story,” but the narrative took a different turn.
To be sure, Philadelphia state senators Vincent Hughes and Anthony Hardy Williams did turn up at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for a discussion of “Natural Gas and Public Opinion” in a workshop at the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s recent conference, “Shale Gas Insight 2012.”
But although the Coalition’s stated intention in bringing its second annual conference here was to acquaint Philadelphians with how the Marcellus energy boom benefits the whole state, much of the “Philadelphia Story” conversation centered on the efforts of a senator from the other end of the Commonwealth, Tim Solobay, to convince Philadelphia’s legislative delegation to support Gov. Tom Corbett’s bill authorizing “local impact fees” to support counties where drillers are working the booming energy development reshaping Appalachia’s economy.
The fees, since authorized by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, produced $197 million for the Commonwealth by early September, and are expected to top $206 million by year’s end. Portions of the state’s share of that money are to be distributed to municipalities across the Commonwealth, including Philadelphia.
Workshop moderator Solobay, whose 46th District spreads over parts of Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland counties and all of Greene County, had invited Hughes and Williams out to see for themselves what life was like in the poorer communities of Southwest Pennsylvania as the natural-gas boom ramped up. For the Philadelphians, that was an eye-opener. New approaches to hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” in common parlance — have brought accelerating development of Marcellus Shale resources, taking Pennsylvania from the bottom rank of natural-gas-producing states to near the top, second only to Texas, by the end of 2011.
Learning on the front lines
“I started out largely hearing about ‘fracking’ through documentaries and news reports,” Williams said. “I was not persuaded so much by Governor Corbett as by the real-life stories of people living in the ‘wasteland’ of Western Pennsylvania. I looked at the poverty in those communities and the jobs being produced, and that, more than anything else, persuaded me to support the impact fee.
“I voted ‘Yes,’ and got pilloried on billboards,” Williams said. But looking at what he saw — especially the rapid economic developments in communities that had been desperate pockets of unemployment and poverty — Williams was convinced it was the right thing to do.
“This, I think frankly, is one of Pennsylvania’s defining moments,” Williams said. “I think the news here (in Philadelphia) is dominated by narrow-band communications from people who think solar energy is the alternative energy source. But we are a Northeastern city.” He understood the environmentalists’ concerns about fracking and the potential of spills contaminating water supplies, Williams said, but in his mind, those dangers are “no different from the consequences of coal.
“To lead the country to miss this size of an opportunity,” Williams said, “is frankly irresponsible. This source of energy will have a positive effect. The benefits outweigh the negatives.”
Environment not neglected
“This is not an industry that’s looking for public relations nightmares,” Solobay said. The pipeline rights of way, and the well-pads they (gas producers) develop are creating wildlife habitat” as part of the developments, Solobay said. “This industry is probably more friendly to the environment than the people protesting realize.”
Perusal of the Shale Gas Insight Conference program booklet reveals that not only the Coalition’s daylong pre-conference meetings, but 15 workshops and presentations — half of all the regular conference sessions — were focused on environmental protection, safety, and regulatory concerns. One telling revelation was that, although shale formations are being drilled and fracked in many states, beginning with Texas’ Barnett Shale in 1985 and continuing with the Haynesville Shale spread across several Southwestern states, Pennsylvania is the only state where the gas producers are using special treatment plants to clean up the chemically treated fracking fluid once it flows back up the well bore, and re-using it to frack new wells.
Talking, but not listening
The protesters outside the Convention Center, arguing with arriving conference attendees about potential harm to Pennsylvania’s drinking water supplies, but with no representatives listening to the presentations inside, missed out on their opportunity for a full-bore discussion of whether the energy companies’ efforts actually were as well worked-out as the environmentalists would like.
State Sen. Hughes agreed with his western Pennsylvania colleague.
“We’ve got to move forward, helping people understand what shale gas means,” Hughes said. Getting the impact fee bill passed “was a pretty tumultuous process, especially here in Southeast Pennsylvania.
“Solobay said, ‘I want you to come out here and just see what this thing is all about’,” Hughes said. “I took him up on it — he did not believe I had jeans and work boots, but I did. Solobay put together a program so we could see up close — to the executives and the people on the ground. We shared and dialogued, and it opened my eyes in a number of different ways,” Hughes said. At dinner one night, people there asked, ‘why is there this contention?’ People in Southwest Pennsylvania experience this industry in their lives. In Southeast Pennsylvania, people don’t get a chance to touch it.”
Effects seen in utility rates
Solobay, for his part, noted that natural gas prices have fallen because of the Marcellus Shale development, producing a 48 percent decline in PGW rates. The availability of so much fuel, Solobay said, was cutting the cost of electric power across the state as well as cutting gas bills.
State Sen. Hughes said his experiences in the western part of the state had made him want to become more knowledgeable about the new energy boom.
“Not until you have that on-the-ground experience (do) you come to see what it means,” he said. We have to have an engaged conversation, and a thoughtful conversation,” Hughes said. “We (Southeast Pennsylvania) are 50 percent of the state’s economy,” he told Solobay. “You can’t ignore us. There’s always going to be a back-and-forth conversation about environmental issues, but the idea of getting people engaged is important.
“Southeast Pennsylvania has to be part of the enterprise, and not just users of the product.”
Not enough local leaders
That point might have been more easily made if more of Philadelphia’s community and government leaders been involved in the shale conference. Gov. Corbett spoke to a packed opening session at Shale Insight 2012, the second conference the gas producers have held in Philadelphia, but his audience was almost entirely made up of well drillers and pipeline builders, contractor companies of various kinds — some 300 counted on the exhibit floor — and representatives of law firms, investor groups and their business associates.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter spoke before another opening session, on the second day of the shale gas conference, but was not involved in its major workshop sessions. Ditto for Philadelphia’s City Council members, many of whom continue to express concern about the risks inherent in the use of chemically treated water — in large amounts — to “frack” underground rock formations to free up natural gas for harvesting. Their distrust has not been addressed.
Growth expected here as well
Several conference speakers, including Corbett, pointed to the Carlyle Group’s rescue of Sunoco’s South Philadelphia refinery, with its plans for a new, Marcellus Shale-gas-fired, 100-megawatt co-generator, new equipment to refine natural gas into petrochemical feedstocks, plastics and synthetic fibers, etc., as well as upgraded oil refining equipment to boost the refinery’s output of low-sulfur diesel fuel, which it exports to other countries.
That development, as well as the recently announced plans to bring 100-car trainloads of Utica Shale petroleum from Eastern Ohio to the Sunoco refinery and shale oil from Colorado and North Dakota also, will re-energize Philadelphia’s chemical manufacturing base. With more trainloads of North American oil headed for Delta Airline’s Trainer, Pa., refinery — and with still other trainloads of natural gas already rolling to Marcus Hook for processing and export to Caribbean countries and a “Mariner East” pipeline set to boost the flow by 2015 — that means this energy boom is as likely to prompt new economic and jobs growth in the Delaware River communities of Southeast Pennsylvania, as it is in the Commonwealth’s southwestern corner.
In other words, people in Philadelphia — and all along the Delaware river as well — are set to see expanding effects from the economic activity flowing out of the drill fields in Southwest Pennsylvania: refinery activity, re-invigorated manufacturing activities because of lower energy and feedstock costs, new port developments and increased river traffic, gushing out of the exploitation of the deep shale hydrocarbon reservoirs almost as fast as the hydrocarbon substances themselves pour out. In turn, that suggests Philadelphians can likely expect shares of the rampant jobs growth the Shale Coalition sees happening mostly in Appalachia — 200,000 new jobs by the state Labor Department’s most widely cited estimate — as well as increased contracting opportunities for small businesses here, just as is happening in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
That message was almost lost in the background noise, as the energy companies and their stock-market boosters celebrated another boom year in an energy development that, as state Sen. Williams said, has produced “a defining moment for Pennsylvania.”
Whether it’s combating threats from the state capital regarding its membership’s pensions or taking a stance on the School District of Philadelphia’s recent decision to boost the pay of executives, American Federation of Teachers President Ted Kirsch has been a very busy man.
At the top of Kirsch’s agenda is the broad threats to his membership’s pension plans that he feels emanating from Gov. Tom Corbett’s office.
Currently, the pension for ATF membership is derived from three sources: employee buy-ins, where an employee funds their own pension through paycheck deductions; the school district then funds a third, while the state kicks in the final portion. That money is then invested into various hedge funds to gain positive returns.
Kirsch contends that the state hasn’t paid in to the pension for roughly a decade, but his membership is being asked, unfairly, for more concessions.
“The issue with the pension fund is the $41 billion shortfall that the governor’s office says it has, and I don’t think it’s that much, but that’s not the issue. One, the state did not [make pension payments] from 2000 to 2010. Secondly, the fund has been doing fairly well in investments. So the state, [in essence], gave the school districts a holiday, told them they didn’t have to make their contribution.”
According to the AFT, the employer rate from 1999-2000 school year to the 2010-11 school year ranged from 0 in 2001-02 to a high of 6.44 percent. At no time during that period did the employer contribution (which is split between the school district employer and the state) match or exceed the employee contribution of 6.25% of gross wages in 1999-2000 and 2000-01 and the current rate of 7.5 percent, which is what all employees hired since the 2001-02 school year pay.
“Keep in mind that we got hit with unpredictable consequences. The stock market took a dive twice, so the fund was doing well, and all of a sudden, it took a big hit and that led to the problem as we see it,” Kirsch explained. “We saw this coming. As a result, in 2010, we were able to get together with other employee organizations, Republicans and Democrats, and in a bipartisan fashion, made some changes. Some of the changes we’ve made include increased employee contributions, capped maximum retirement benefits, increased the retirement age from 60 to 65 and increased the number of years you could vest from five to ten. We anticipated making some changes.”
Kirsch is now asking that Corbett and the state legislature give time for these reforms to work.
“There is another solution to the problem of underfunded pensions that would require that Gov. Corbett and legislators end their policy of giving tax cuts and tax credits to big corporations and close loopholes that allow profitable companies to pay little or no taxes in Pennsylvania,” Kirsch said. “It’s time to let the 2010 pension reforms work or consider raising revenues to fund public employee pensions. Public employees should not be asked to make more sacrifices. They literally already gave at the office.”
While his membership – including Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan and his team - convenes a meeting in Rhode Island that will cover common core state standards in regard to school district curriculums, teacher evaluation and development, Kirsch took issue with the School District of Philadelphia’s recent decision to give pay hikes to nonunionized district officials; media reports say those raises could be from anywhere between 13 and 49 percent. This comes on the heels of the district informing union members earlier this year that they would not give previously agreed upon three percent raises to unionized staff, as the district was under financial distress.
“What is very disturbing to me is that they are asking, and have asked, so many people to make sacrifices,” Kirsch said. “The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has gone years without raises and recently gave back $58 million in a loan. The [unionized workers] are among the lowest-paid workers.
“And [the PFT] just agreed to three years without raises, and that’s a sacrifice these people made,” Kirsch continued. “How do you justify giving people significantly more raises? If you say they deserve it, well, who deserves it more than the people in the classroom? These are the people on the front lines.”
Leroy Nunery seeks continued test score growth, better rapport with union
In a wide-ranging meeting with The Philadelphia Tribune earlier this week, acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery spoke optimistically about his future with the Philadelphia School District, enthusiastically about getting students up to speed in a digital age, with trepidation about the relationship between the district and the city’s teachers’ union, and not at all about his role in the Martin Luther King High School quagmire.
The runner-up to former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for the job in 2008, Nunery, who has lived and worked in the city for the last 13 years, said if he does not succeed in his present job, there is no need to even think about leading the country’s eighth-largest school district.
“I’m not going to put any further thought into it,” Nunery said. “If I don’t do the job that I’m tasked with doing today, then it won’t matter in three or four months, so that’s where I am.
“Do I believe I have the qualifications? Yes,” said Nunery, adding that he has not spoken with Mayor Michael Nutter about the job. “I’ve already been vetted through the process once. I’ve been in this seat and, quite frankly, I’m doing my old job as deputy superintendent in the current job as acting superintendent at the same time.”
Nunery, who served as Ackerman’s deputy for 14 months before she agreed to a $905,000 buyout of her contract in August, knows that there will be a national search to fill the position.
He does, however, think that he has shown the commitment required to do the job. For years he worked with Edison Schools in New York, but continued to raise his family here.
“I’ve been around a lot of folks, from labor union heads to presidents of universities, community leader and public officials,” Nunery said.
“That doesn’t mean that those things are going to buffer me, but at least I know my way around town. It’s not starting from scratch; it’s more about having a running start and there are some real advantages to that. But if I don’t get the superintendent’s job, if I decide that I’m interested in it, I’ll still be in education because this is what I’ve been called to do. As for the national search, the whole idea of looking for the best talent is something that the city is owed.”
Nunery spoke glowingly about the smooth start to the school year. However, he acknowledged that the budget cuts — the result of the effort to close the $680 million budget gap — have left the district with a skeleton staff. Cuts have reduced staff at central headquarters on Broad Street by 50 percent.
Overall, the district staff, according to Nunery, has been reduced by 30 percent.
Since schools opened last month, Nunery has busied himself by “getting out to as many schools as possible in the community, meeting with business and community leaders.”
Whether or not Nunery ultimately becomes the superintendent, the disparity and apparent inequity in the awarding of contracts to city businesses will continue to be an issue. As recently as 2003, in an overwhelmingly African-American school district, minority and women-owned businesses just got 2 percent of the pie. An anti-discrimination policy adopted that year boosted that number to 27 percent in 2010. However, fewer than half of those dollars went to African-American contractors.
Nunery said that African-Americans must do a better job of providing the goods and services that the school district needs. He used as an example the purchasing of textbooks, saying that not a lot of African-American companies sell text books.
In the past, African-American companies, according to Nunery, have benefitted in areas of providing social and support services. But in order to receive a larger piece of the pie, Nunery said, businesses will have to provide the services that the budget-strapped district requires.
“There will be more opportunities in construction, retrofitting buildings and things of that nature. That is where you are going to have more opportunities. We have got to turn some of these buildings into more energy-efficient buildings. So there are going to be a lot of opportunities for local businesses.”
Although Nunery says the district is not where it wants to be in terms of graduation rates and improving academic performance, it can point to nine straight years of rising test scores.
Nunery says this is not enough. He said that too many children are graduating from schools — not just in Philadelphia, but all over the country — needing remedial help once they get to college. He referred to a recent conversation with a local administrator in which he was told that three-fourths of the students coming out the school district need remedial assistance, mostly, he says, in technical areas.
“We have to get our kids up to speed in the areas of science, technology, math and science so that the district can be more market responsive,” he said. “We want our children to be more digitally proficient. If that is going to happen, the teachers are going to require more training in that area. It’s that simple.”
Nunery also hopes to develop a better working relationship with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. He knows that the union does not favor teacher evaluations — the city’s union chose not to participate in the state’s pilot program.
However, Gov. Tom Corbett, in releasing his education agenda earlier this week, highlighted improved standards in teacher evaluations as one of his main goals.
“This is coming, the whole idea of teacher evaluations.” said Nunery, adding that he has had a number of good conversations with union boss Jerry Jordan. “The conversation for us is about getting both sides on the same side.”
What isn’t coming any time soon from Nunery is an explanation of what he meant when describing a meeting about Martin Luther King High School becoming a charter school as being like a scene from “The Godfather.”
Nunery attended the meeting — along with state Rep. Dwight Evans, former School Reform Commission Chair Robert L. Archie and Mosaica Turnaround Partners President John Porter. Mosaica had been chosen to manage King over Evans’ charter partner, Foundations Inc., just hours earlier.
Mosaica backed out following that meeting, King never became a charter, and last month a scathing report out of the mayor’s office determined that Archie’s and Evans’ actions were inappropriate.
“What I said is in the report,” said Nunery, refusing further comment.
During an angry and vocal rally held outside of the Municipal Services Building Thursday morning, members of the NAACP, several union representatives, clergy, state and city legislators took turns commenting on the Pennsylvania Voter ID law.
The rally, which was hosted by the NAACP, took place before the state Supreme Court heard testimony regarding the controversial law that has been the target of opposition since Republican Governor Tom Corbett signed off on it. Opponents of the law have said it was not designed to prevent voter fraud but to disenfranchise voters who most likely will cast their ballot for Pres. Barack Obama in the upcoming election.
“This law is nothing less than a criminal offense against democracy,” said Philadelphia NAACP President J. Whyatt Mondesire. “We’re out here to let the government know that this voter identification law is wrong and based on a lie. We have not stopped fighting to turn this thing around. Despite attempts to use voter ID as a way to block the vote, we will make sure that people vote. Today, we use the voice that the NAACP has been fighting to protect for over a century.”
Referencing deceased civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Harry T. Moore, who were murdered while working to register African Americans to vote, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said the law amounts to a modern poll tax.
“This year, in this country, we have seen more states pass laws to push voters off the polls than in the past 100 years,” Jealous said. “Turning the tide, we have won in Texas and we have even won in the Republican states of Michigan and Virginia, but we find ourselves here challenging the law again. We won in Wisconsin and Minnesota and yet here we are, in the cradle of our democracy, fighting to keep the right to vote. This is not a Republican thing or a Democratic thing. It is an extremist thing. All of us should have the right to vote.”
According to a legal brief filed by the city , City Commissioners Stephanie Singer and Anthony Clark, and the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the Voter ID law would place unconstitutional burdens on more than 100,000 voters in the city. At least 186,000 registered voters in Philadelphia have no form of PennDOT identification. At least 175,000 registered voters have expired PennDOT identification. The brief goes on to state that approximately 361,000 of the city's 1,100,000 registered voters may not have sufficient identification to cast their votes on Election Day.
Opponents of the law say that despite virtually no evidence of voter fraud — the problem that the law was supposed to prevent — voter ID is necessary to protect the integrity of the ballot. During hearings in March, before Corbett signed the law, attorneys for the Commonwealth could provide no instances of voter impersonation fraud. Following the passage of the measure into law, the U.S. Department of Justice requested information to determine Pennsylvania’s compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. That section prohibits voting procedures or practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership or membership in a language minority. That information request was subsequently refused by James Schultz, general counsel for the Corbett administration. In a letter responding to the DOJ request, Schultz said the federal government had no authority to either request or compel the Commonwealth for that information.
“The question is why you really had to change the law?” asked the Rev. Dr. Kevin, R. Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, during the rally. “Did you change the law because you knew that people lack photo ID in poor black and brown communities?
“We have to vote because people died for out right to vote. We have to vote because Medgar Evers died for us. We have to vote because hundreds of thousands marched for us.”
The recent voter ID law that was passed in Pennsylvania, in April, has created such a political stir that grassroots leaders, prominent community organizations, politicians and clergy, have shifted into overdrive to push voter registration, voter turnout and an educational blitz about the proper ID required to vote in the November election.
During a citywide voter ID rally, held on Sunday at Bright Hope Baptist Church, the Tribune caught up with civil rights leader Jerome Whyatt Mondesire, president, NAACP/Philadelphia Chapter, for his comments about the voter ID law. Mondesire believes the voter ID law is a veiled political attempt to suppress votes: “We firmly believe that, it’s not just in Pennsylvania; there are 41 states where they have tried this, it is designed to keep the turnout of African Americans, Latinos, young people and seniors down … Republicans believe that if they are able to keep the vote down, that they can possibly win several key states that they didn’t win in 2008.”
Mondesire did not mince words in further excoriating high ranking Republicans for crafting the voter ID law for this particular election cycle, “It’s all about the politics, to talk about stopping fraud, it’s just a lie. (Governor) Corbett’s a liar and his colleagues in the state House and the state Senate who passed this law, they’re equally liars.”
According to an August 10, 2012 news article published in the Altoona Mirror newspaper, in Altoona, Pa. (“Voter ID Law, Wrong”), it read: “Pennsylvania recently passed a voter ID law, citing the need to protect against voting fraud. However, there hasn’t been any such widespread fraud in the state, with only four cases of voting fraud documented since 2004.
Recently, Rep. Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania House majority leader, revealed the real reason the voter ID law was passed. Speaking to a Republican gathering, he bragged the voter ID law will ensure Gov. Mitt Romney a victory in Pennsylvania.”
Cherelle Parker, state Representative (D-200th District) and chair, Philadelphia Delegation of the Pennsylvania House, received a standing ovation during her brief speech at the Bright Hope Baptist Church Voter ID Rally, “The clergy, of all faiths, has always been at the lead to motivate and inspire and to organize … we all have to take responsibility for ensuring that we won’t allow any law, any legislator, or anything of that nature, to infringe on our constitutional right to vote.”
Parker cited that in the 2008 presidential election, Pennsylvania delivered a victory for Obama by a slim margin of votes saying, “I didn’t realize that there was such a short-small margin of victory between the winner and the loser in the last presidential election … there was only a 620,000 vote difference … we have 12 million people here (in Pennsylvania), and the (state) election was determined by a little over a half million people.”
The VIP guests on the dais, representing and supporting the Pennsylvania Voter ID Faith-Based Coalition/Voter ID Rally at Bright Hope, included a diversity of ethnicities, genders, faiths, political hierarchy and community leadership: Rev. Dr. J. Wendall Mapson Jr., pastor, Monumental Baptist Church; Everette Gillison, chief of staff, Mayor’s Office; Stephanie Singer, chair, Philadelphia County Commissioners; Rev. Charles Quann, pastor, Bethlehem Baptist Church (Penllyn, Pa.); Rabbi Alan D. Fuchs (retired), Congregation Rodeph Shalom; Rev. Bonnie Camarda, Hispanic Clergy Community; Minister Rodney Muhammad, Muhammad Mosque No. 12; Imam Suetwedien Muhammad, resident imam of Masjid Muhammad of Philadelphia; state Representative Cherelle Parker; Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson, pastor, Bright Hope Baptist Church; Rabbi Adam Zeff, Germantown Jewish Center; Rev. Tamieka Moore, Tenth Memorial Baptist Church; Rev. Dr. William Moore, pastor, Tenth Memorial Baptist Church; and Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director at Committee of Seventy/Greater Philadelphia Area.
Commenting on the voter ID law, Rev. Quann said, “I really think it’s a moral issue … (African Americans) have been denied the right to vote for many years. People have given their lives to vote, and I just believe in my heart that this (election) is not about a particular candidate, but rather, it’s an opportunity for people to vote based upon their choice. And when that’s taken away, then we have to really respond, so, I’m here today to respond on behalf of a people,” who many believe are targeted to be disenfranchised from voting this election cycle.
“It’s important that everyone vote and that we teach people how to get their proper ID to do so. If the law makes it difficult for people who have every right to vote, to do so, then the law I think, becomes a problem; but we’re going to do the best we can to make sure that everybody’s able to vote,” said Rabbi Fuchs.
Rabbi Zeff said his synagogue and the Jewish community are very active in advocating for voter rights for all people saying, “we thought with the passage of the Voting Rights Act (of 1965) that our fight was over and that we had won; and now we’re finding that our fight is not over, and that the right to vote is being attacked, even in our (current day). So, we see this as an issue of justice and equality, that whoever people support for an election, and whatever partisan views that they may have, their voice deserves to be heard. And this (voter ID) law … makes it more difficult, especially for certain classes of voters, who have every right to vote, to be able to exercise that right. It’s an unjust law … we need to work to help voters comply with this law, even while thinking, it’s an unjust law.”
“People need help in navigating the law and navigating the process, and we just want to be available as faith leaders, because we feel it is our responsibility to speak for social justice issues and for equality. We just want to help empower (citizens) so that they can make their voices heard through the ballot, which is the democratic way,” said Rev. Mapson.
The Committee of Seventy, a prominent non-profit that advocates for effective government and fair elections, has published a list of area churches where the community can find information and help with voter ID requirements. An abridged listing includes: Bible Way Baptist Church, 1323 N. 52nd St., Philadelphia, Pa.; St. Mark AME Zion Church, 136 N. Congress St., Newton, Pa.; Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Holmesburg, 8101 Erdick St., Holmesburg, Pa.; Tenth Memorial Baptist Church, 1328 N. 19th St., Philadelphia, Pa.; and Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, 128 Walnut St., Ardmore, Pa.
For 25 years, Imam Suetwedien Muhammad, has been the resident imam of Masjid Muhammad of Philadelphia, in Germantown. He expressed impassioned feelings about the voter ID law and other recent political maneuverings, “We appreciate being able to hold such a rally to educate our people (about the voter ID law), but I really look at it as another form of modern day slavery. As we begin to close 40 schools, open 10 new prisons, and begin to take the right away from our people to vote, I think it’s a travesty in our community.” As a committeeman in his neighborhood, Imam Muhammad said, “I have worked the (voting) polls myself…I’ve worked the polls for the last 20 years, and there’s no voter fraud going on at the polls.”
According to Stephanie Singer, chair, Philadelphia County Commissioners, the voter ID law, “Is an attack on Philadelphia. This law is designed to suppress the vote in Philadelphia, and all of us Philadelphians … all of us need to come together to defend our city against this attack. I want people to know that voting is powerful, and that every election matters … elections have consequences, and when we as a city do not turn out to vote, we are giving up power to the rest of the state.”
Everett Gillison, former deputy mayor for public safety and current chief of staff to Mayor Michael Nutter, had this to say about the voter ID law: “As the mayor would say, ‘Democracy began here (in Philadelphia).’ And this (voter ID law) is an attack on our fundamental right to vote and to participate. That’s why voter education is so critically important, and the mayor wanted to make sure that we all rallied together and do what’s necessary to protect our rights.” Gillison said that a more measured approach to rolling out this law and greater public education would have been a better way to implement the law. Furthermore, Gillison concluded that, according to Mayor Nutter, the voter ID law “was a remedy in search of a problem.”
Joe Certaina, co-convener and director of operations for the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, said that “The main purpose of (today’s rally is) to form an alliance, a grassroots alliance, with the faith community in Philadelphia County and the surrounding area. From that alliance, we expect to harness volunteers as well as voter educational opportunities through voter ID clinics, and to put together a transportation network that will help people to get to the Pennsylvania PennDot offices … in time for people to get the voter identification they need to vote.”
For more information about proper voter identification, or to volunteer, the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition’s office is at 310 West Chelten Avenue, Philadelphia, Pa., phone: 215-848-1283; or visit the Committee of Seventy website: http://www.seventy.org/.
“We cannot sit here and say we’re not going to vote, simply because the law has changed. You have to vote, beloved … ,” said Rev. Kevin Johnson, pastor, Bright Hope Baptist Church.
One is at a loss to know where to begin in answering Daryl Gale’s column calling for the governor’s impeachment.
He says the governor has cut education. In truth, the governor budgeted more in state dollars for basic education than at any time in our history. What was missing was $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars which were intended for shovel-ready, one-time projects.
Among his more alarming claims is that the governor is allowing gas drillers to “rape” our state’s environment while paying no taxes or fees. This is wrong on several levels.
Marcellus drillers have paid more than $1.6 billion in taxes — most of it in the past three years. They are not tax exempt.
The governor crafted and implemented an impact fee in addition to this, meaning that a fully productive well will pay $310,000 to its host community over a 10-year period.
As to environmental issues, one need only google the terms “Chesapeake” and “record fine” to see that Tom Corbett laid down more than $1 million in penalties on a Marcellus driller for environmental failures.
The assertion that Gov. Corbett has put college out of financial reach for students is especially odd. College tuition at state and state-related universities was spiraling past the inflation rate for the past 15 years until the governor cried halt. This year, for the first time in modern memory, state-related universities agreed to hold tuition increases at, or below, the rate of inflation.
The astonishing declaration that Corbett did nothing about Jerry Sandusky is outrageously untrue. Since 1998, four different agencies failed to pursue allegations that Sandusky was preying on children. As soon as a complaint reached the office of then-Attorney General Tom Corbett in 2009, a team of agents and lawyers was assigned to locate victims, persuade them to come forward publicly, and testify.
Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts. He’s off the streets for good. Tom Corbett did that.
That there are partisans and opportunists out there during an election year calling for impeachments of all sorts is no surprise. The surest way to enrage one’s enemies is to succeed. But the Tribune, and a city editor entrusted to bring straight and unbiased news to its readership, should not be swept up in the campaigns of political opportunists.
Dennis Roddy is a former newspaper journalist who now works as special assistant to the governor.
Philadelphia’s electorate greater in 2008
With fewer than 60 days before the November 6 election, the number of registered voters in Philadelphia is lower now than it was just before the 2008 presidential election, and voter registration numbers are lagging far behind those from a similar point in 2008. In addition, there is little evidence that Philadelphia voters who need ID to vote are applying for voter identification.
According to figures from the state Department of State, there were about 1 million registered voters in the city as of September 3. State data showed 811,808 Democrats, 129,369 Republicans, 76,903 with no party affiliation and 21,442 from all other parties combined.
That compares to figures from 2008 when state figures showed a total of 1.1 million registered voters with 880,681 Democrats, 147,068 Republicans and 99,011 from all other parties in early November.
Since March, about 77,000 new voters have registered to vote in Philadelphia, said Dennis Lee, chief of staff for City Commissioner Stephanie Singer. That pales in comparison to 2008 numbers when, in just the month of September, 80,000 people registered to vote.
“It’s not on the same pace as it was in 2008,” he said. “We’re behind.”
Historically, voter registration numbers have been the figure to watch.
But this year, being registered to vote isn’t enough. Registered voters must now also have a photo ID to cast their ballot on November 6.
State estimates released earlier this year suggested 186,830 Philadelphians lacked the identification need to cast a ballot. Across the state, that number ballooned to 758,000 registered voters.
PennDOT does not track the number of applications for voter identification.
However, according to PennDOT spokeswoman Jan McKnight, 6,661 voter IDs have been issued since March when Gov. Tom Corbett signed the new law. The vast majority of them — 2,823 — have been issued to Philadelphia residents. She cautioned that that figure was for voter ID cards only — voters may also use a valid driver’s license to vote.
In addition, the Department of State has issued 299 of its voter IDs, which were first available August 28.
McKnight said the department does not track turnaround times for either identity card.
“We do not have a tracking mechanism in place,” she said.
Turnaround could become a crucial issue as Election Day nears.
Anecdotal evidence suggests times vary widely from a little as an hour to as much as a several months, depending on what kind of ID the applicant is seeking and what documents they have.
“A lot of people are frustrated,” Lee said. “But, they are taking the necessary steps to get their ID.”
He related the story of Philadelphia voter, Lawrence Austin, who started the process of getting his ID in June and just received it this week.
“It took him a while, even though he was registered,” Lee said. “It can be a long process and it can be a frustrating process.”
Lee urged voters to persist.
“We have to really press and pick up the pace,” he said. “In order to get the masses out to the polling place, it’s going to be a massive undertaking.”
He also assured Philadelphia residents that if they get to the polls their votes would count.
“We’re going to do everything possible to make sure their vote is counted,” Lee said. “Even if they don’t have ID they can still go to the polls and use a provisional ballot. Don’t allow the voter ID to intimidate you.”