What’s happening with the School District of Philadelphia these days is beyond tragic. Even action adjectives like “crisis” or “troubled” just don’t cut it anymore. The situation is not troubled, folks, it is catastrophic. What we’re talking about here is the real possibility that students, teachers, and administrators could erase the blackboards, turn off the lights and close the classroom door. Permanently.
That may be an overly dramatic metaphor, but not by much.
The school district’s budget deficit, an ever-changing number, seems to grow each week. No matter how many nurses and non-teaching assistants are laid off, no matter how many schools are forced to cut art, music and after-school activities; no matter how many belt-tightening measures are introduced; the number never goes down.
Just how big is the deficit? Depends on whom you ask, and what day it is, but the latest figure from district bean counters is just north of $200 million. (Of course, it could be snarkily pointed out that if they’d been counting the beans all along, we wouldn’t be in this mess.)
So where did the money go? It’s one of the fundamental questions and one of the keys to unlocking the mystery of why taxpayer money flows into the district, but never makes it down to the classroom.
Neither your local politicians, nor district officials like to talk about where the money went. Oh, they know all right — they just don’t want you bringing it up because it’s a sensitive subject. Well, let’s bring it up anyway.
The answer to that question can be boiled down to one word: consultants. The district pays out millions every year for consultants whose advice ranges from serious academic matters to who sweeps the gym floors. They’ve got legal consultants, PR consultants, academic consultants, recreational consultants and probably consultants who consult on the hiring of consultants. (OK, that last one was an exaggeration — but again, not by much.)
Full disclosure: I was, at one time, one of those consultants. Several years ago I worked for a company who bid on, and won, a school district contract for communications work.
We did a good job, and were paid very well.
The question is not whether the paid consultants are fulfilling the terms of their contracts, because in most cases, they are, and admirably. The question is whether the district needed to award all those contracts in the first place, and whether they could have gotten the same work done less expensively.
When the district, or any other entity, invites RFPs, or requests for proposals, they have a pretty good idea how much they’re willing to spend. In years past, the district spent money faster than it came in from the city, state and federal governments. They threw cash around like a sailor on liberty; then, when informed that buildings were crumbling and there weren’t enough textbooks to go around, wondered where the money went.
In a promo commercial for MSNBC, preacher / activist / talk show host Rev. Al Sharpton relates a funny little parable about when he was a child, and he and his friends would devour their mothers’ freshly baked blueberry pies. When confronted, the kids would deny the pie-napping, but were given away by the blueberry pie all over their faces.
In his series of brilliant in-depth articles on the current woes of the school district, continued in this issue, Tribune education reporter Damon Williams explores what happened and why. Look for his upcoming piece about how the district went bust, and who has the blueberry pie on their faces.
You’ll find a who’s who of the usual suspects — the politically connected, the deep pocketed, the big money contributors — and all the nepotism, cronyism, favoritism, bad management and political double dealing you could ever want. For years, the school district was the personal ATM machine of this city’s power brokers, and now that the cash has run out, no one seems to know what happened to it all.
It’s not that much different than when you were a kid, and your mother gave you money to take to school for lunch. You stopped at the corner store on the way to school for chips, soda and candy; then ended up looking sad and sorry at lunchtime because you had no money — and no lunch.
No matter how much money the state threw at the district, they spent it faster. Same with local tax money and federal stimulus money — gone in sixty seconds.
Now, it’s lunchtime, and there they sit, looking sad and sorry.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.