The ghosts of administrations’ past continue to haunt the Philadelphia School District, as former District executive John L. Byars filed a civil suit against the District over his December 2010 firing.
Such a move couldn’t come at a worse time from the District’s standpoint, as it is in the midst of searching for a new superintendent and still dealing with the drawn-out process of closing multiple ineffective or obsolete schools.
In his suit, Byars alleges that he was made the scapegoat when news broke of the District’s decision to award a $7.5 million, no-bid contract to minority communications firm IBS Communications, Inc. He alleges that former superintendent Arlene Ackerman was the force behind the contract going to IBS instead of the Bucks County-based Security & Data Technologies firm, and believes that the ensuing firestorm cost Byars his job.
The suit, filed last Wednesday in the Pennsylvania Eastern District Court, names Ackerman, Leroy D. Nunery II, Robert Archie Jr., Denise McGregor Armbrister, Joseph Dworetzky, Johnny Irizarry, Estelle G. Mathews, Jamilah Fraser, Shana Kemp, the School Reform Commission and the School District of Philadelphia as defendants.
Interestingly, along with being named in the suit, Dworetzky was recently appointed as a member of the SRC’s search team for a new superintendent; Nunery is currently serving as the interim school superintendent.
The no-bid contract to provide video surveillance and other technical support that was awarded to IBS seemed murky from the outset. Byars alleges that Ackerman had a personal relationship with IBS’ president; previously, Ackerman admitted that she directed that the firm be included in a much smaller contract to install cameras at South Philadelphia High School.
School district spokesman Fernando Gallard declined comment; Ackerman is now living and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she serves as CEO and president of the Ackerman Education Strategies Group.
Bu this wouldn’t be the first time Ackerman has faced a lawsuit in her position as school chief.
In a case with stunning similarities, Ackerman, while serving as superintendent of the San Francisco School District, she was named in a lawsuit for illegal contracts. Ackerman received a payout of more than of $375,000 as part of her settlement package with the SFSD — only to apply for unemployment compensation after receiving the settlement. Ackerman also sued the SFSD for $172,000 for what she said were unpaid bonuses; Ackerman eventually dropped that lawsuit.
According to Byars’ suit, when word leaked in November of 2010 that various media outlets were preparing an exposé on the District’s contract with IBS, Ackerman, Nunery and at least two other school officials devised the plan that led to Byars eventual ouster. Byars, along with five other school officials, were suspended with pay in late 2010.
Bright Hope Baptist Church Pastor Kevin Johnson has heard all of the talk about “turning pages” and transparency coming out of the Philadelphia School District the past week.
He’s seen the School Reform Commission swear in a new member, and he’s seen the appointment, by the mayor and the state, of a pair of executive advisors.
But Johnson wants to see the changes in action, not hear about them from a podium.
“All of this looks good in theory,” said Johnson, who is former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s minister. “But the verdict is still out. It might work for the adults. But the verdict is out on whether or not it will work for the kids.”
On Monday, Mayor Michael Nutter, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis and the SRC held a press conference to reinforce the notion of increased cooperation and collaboration between the city and state to improve the school district. In the days to follow, anyone connected with the school district spoke of a new transparency, something sorely lacking in the school district in recent months.
Johnson hopes this new transparency is not solely about the children, but also the business that is generated by the school district’s $3 billion budget. Referencing the uproar in the city when Ackerman gave a previous no-bid contract for $7.5 million to IBS Communications, Inc — one of many minority firms sidestepped for district business — Johnson hopes that this will no longer be the case in a district that is more than 80 percent African American.
“I’m all for fiscal transparency but I’m also for fiscal equity,” Johnson said. “We can be transparent all we want, but what good is it if minority contractors don’t get their fair share? What good is it if there is no equity?”
On the same page with Johnson is state Rep. Ron Waters. Like Johnson, a supporter of Ackerman, Waters wants more than lip service in every facet of the school district’s operation.
“There has to be transparency in order to build up and keep public trust strong,” Waters said. “Taxpayers are entitled to know how the money is being spent and invested. They should know everything from payrolls to contracts to student achievement.”
Nutter on Tuesday named Lori Shorr, since 2008 the mayor’s chief education officer and the director of the office of the public school family and child advocate, as the city’s executive adviser. Tomalis named Edward Williams, the school district’s former chief academic officer, as the state’s representative. Acting chair Wendell Pritchett, the mayor’s most recent appointee to the SRC, made his debut at the first SRC meeting of the academic year on Wednesday. Nutter is expected to name his next appointee later this month, and gubernatorial appointee Pedro Ramos should go before the state senate for confirmation around Thanksgiving.
And in one final Wednesday move, Craig Carnaroli, executive vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, was chosen to head up the Financial Operations and Systems Working Group, an unpaid position. The SRC will appoint a group of five to nine executives from around the city with expertise on financial, contracting, and personnel matters.
On Wednesday, Shorr and Williams said their role is to offer advice to interim superintendent Leroy Nunery. However, Nunery will “be the man to make the final decisions,” Williams said.
All of these moves are seen as counters to the circus-like operation of the district in recent months. There has been little explanation as to how the district budget gap soared to $629 million. Some have wondered if the strong-arm tactics of former SRC chairman Robert Archie and state Rep. Dwight Evans — detailed in a scathing report by the mayor’s chief integrity officer — warrant criminal charges.
All this, of course, was sandwiched between Ackerman’s SRC-granted contract extension, her refusal to support Evans’ charter takeover of Martin Luther King High School and her subsequent ouster as superintendent, orchestrated by the SRC.
This has activist Elder Pamela Williams making demands.
Before moving on, Williams wants to see the SRC’s books opened for the public going all the way back to its inception in January 2005. Like Johnson, she wants a full accounting of all the districts contracts.
“We say that we are going to be transparent, but where does it start?” Williams asked.
Referring to Shorr, Williams added, “It does not start with the mayor appointing an overseer to watch over Leroy Nunery,” the interim superintendent. “Now everything that happens will be pushed under the rug.”
Williams also believes that district chief financial officer Michael Masch has been given a free ride with regard to the district’s financial woes. Ackerman once described the advice given her by Masch as “mumbo-jumbo.”
If School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos has his way, students enrolled in the Philadelphia School District and their parents should know who the new superintendent is before schools open in September.
That’s provided the newly assembled Superintendent Search Team can finish its work in the next eight months.
“There is no greater responsibility for the SRC than selecting the right superintendent,” Ramos said through a statement released by the SRC. “We believe we can complete the search before September, and we will continue until we have the right leader for our district and our system of schools. We will not settle.”
Lorene Cary, Joseph Dworetzky, Feather Houstoun, and Wendell Pritchett will join Ramos as members of the search team, with Pritchett serving as search team leader. Its executive advisors are Lori Shorr and Edward Williams; Fred Ginyard, Kenneth Kring and Robert Wonderling, the president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, will round out the team. And that team certainly has its work cut out for it, given the high-profile dismissal last August of controversial former superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
After her dismissal, Ackerman humiliated and infuriated school and city officials by filing for unemployment – after she was paid $905,000 in her severance package. The SRC, in its settlement with Ackerman, stated it would not resist her attempt to claim unemployment.
All parties involved in the search for a new school district leader promise a diligent, well-executed search that will focus on certain core criteria.
“Effective community dialogue and input will be critical in the selection of our next superintendent,” said Pritchett. “It is important that the search team is transparent and inclusive in its efforts to select the best candidate to sustain and accelerate the positive academic gains of our children we have experienced.
“The search team must, at the same time, be respectful of the privacy interests of persons who are not prepared to be a candidate, or are not under consideration as finalists for the position.”
Count Mayor Michael Nutter as one of those impressed with the SRC’s move to create the search team.
“I commend the SRC on striking a balance between the need for true public engagement and the importance of moving quickly…this community engagement process will help the SRC to learn from parents, students, and stakeholders about what is needed at the school level as they take on the vitally important task,” Nutter said. “The community engagement process will provide invaluable input to be used throughout the selection process and beyond.”
After an adversarial summer that left the School Reform Commission and the office of the superintendent in a state of upheaval, conversation is breaking out across the city with the goal of moving forward and leaving the ruins behind.
This was the tone struck Tuesday night at a public forum discussion of governance and the School District of Philadelphia. Presented by Public Citizens for Children and Youth at the United Way building, the panel, moderated by recently retired Philadelphia Daily News columnist Elmer Smith, took on issues such as whether or not SRC members should be paid, whether an elected board works better than the SRC, the lack of succession planning in leadership positions and other issues.
SRC critic Helen Gym, founder of Parents United for Public Education, believes that the SRC, which oversees the third largest budget (approximately $3 billion), should be a full-time job.
“I don’t think that five people who have separate jobs and think they are volunteering as an appointment can really do the job that is necessary,” Gym flatly stated. “I just don’t think it’s a volunteer job. You have the third largest budget in the state and you are just going to hand it over to a group of volunteers who don’t have it on their agenda as a full-time job? I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
Sandra Dungee-Glenn, president and chief executive officer of American Cities Foundation, was the former chair of the SRC. She also served on the Board of Education before it was replaced by the SRC in 2001 in response to the school district’s financial problems.
Dungee-Glenn believes that the chair should take a salary; the other four members, she says, should not.
“You are sitting in that seat and it’s hard for anyone; it’s tough,” Dungee-Glenn said. “For the chair to do it well you need to be devoted to it full time. You are not only the leading voice but you are also the one responsible for setting the agenda — you’re the face of the city and the school district. So, yes, the chair should be a full-time position.”
The district is still trying to close a budget gap that was as high as $680 million. There have been mass layoffs, a damning report out of the mayor’s office condemning the actions of former SRC boss Robert L. Archie and state Rep. Dwight Evans, the buyout of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the subsequent resignations of Archie and fellow board member Johnny Irizarry.
For Dungee-Glenn, how those charged with leading the school district arrive there — via appointment or election — is more important is that they know there job when they get there.
“How they get there is not really important,” she said. “Whether elected or appointed, most school board members are very poorly prepared for what we are asked to do — that’s really the problem.”
Keith Lomax, a 2011 Southern High graduate, expressed concerns that the SRC didn’t operate in the best interest of Philadelphians, mostly because the governor has more appointments than the mayor.
“It should have had more people from Philadelphia who are familiar with what goes on in Philly,” Lomax, headed for the army, said.
For Maurice Jones, a member of the Philadelphia Student Union and the West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighborhood Schools, governance at the school district is an amorphous group of acronyms that seem out of touch with parents and the students.
“From the perspective of a parent,” Jones, the home and school president of Lea Elementary, said, “I just feel like I haven’t been able to interact with the whole process because my voice is never heard. People get nominated for positions and there is no interaction. They come and they go and during that process the parents, who speak for children, don’t have a say. When they are gone the parent is still left standing and wondering when I’m going to get a say. When do we get an opportunity to have a say?”
Samuel Reed, a representative for the for the Teachers’ Institute of Philadelphia, believes that too often governance is discussed from the top down, the result being that the grass roots people are ignored and neglected.
“We all need to be involved to have a better, more responsive school district,” Reed said. “Therefore you should just be concerned about who is in charge and running the big operation. Let’s take care of the foundation at the school level, then we can approach what we need to do at the top. If you have a poor foundation but good governance at the top, what are you going to have? The foundation hasn’t been addressed and as a result the building is going to crumble.”
Smith led the discussion into a conversation about succession planning; something the school district has come under criticism for, particularly in wake of yet another national search to fill the vacant superintendent’s seat. Smith asked whether constantly bringing in people with a “new vision” for the school district was a good idea.
“I get nervous whenever I hear people talking about that,” said former Trenton Public Schools principal and Penn Professor James H. Lytle said. “One of Philadelphia’s biggest problems is that it hasn’t had a local superintendent since the mid 1990s.”
A professor of Foundations and Practices in education, Lytle added, “One of the first things you teach is leadership so that you don’t have to go fishing all over the countryside every time we need a new leader. We have not done a good job of this at any level.”
“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Fixing the public school system in Philadelphia is like building a house in a storm. It can be done, but it’s hard! Over the past several years, there has been a plethora of public educational plans written to provide a road map of success for our children.
These plans have ranged from David Hornbeck’s “Children Achieving” initiative (1994) to the Philadelphia School District Improvement Plan (2000) to Paul Vallas’ “Diverse Provider Model” (2002) to Arlene Ackerman’s “Imagine 2014” (2009) to The Philadelphia Great Schools Compact Report (2011) to the Boston Consulting Group’s “Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools” (2012).
It shouldn’t be so complicated, but it is. Whoever sits at the helm of the School District of Philadelphia has to be prepared to take the long view, riffle through the debris, and get all the stakeholders to the table to tackle a number of urgent questions that demand our full attention. Amid gusty political and economic winds, our new superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., recently released his own plan entitled, “Action Plan v1.0.”
Hite, I believe, is a good man. I believe that he wants all of our children to learn and succeed. As a concerned parent and pastor of a number of students enrolled in Philadelphia’s public schools, I, too, want all students to be prepared to fulfill their dreams, and to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, teachers, superintendents, mayors, governors, and even president of the United States of America. The plan, however, raises more questions than it answers.
Given the media publicity that surrounded it, I was excited to read Hite’s plan. I expected this plan to be holistic and achieve what the other plans were not able to do: to provide an inspirational vision and plan of action that is student-centered and a road map for educators, administrators, students, parents, politicians and supported by taxpayers.
His plan, however, appears to be missing a critical element — it doesn’t express a heart for our children. His plan, as initially announced in December 2012, proposes to close 37 schools, most of which are in North Philadelphia in Black and brown neighborhoods. Closing buildings will not save nearly as much as the District projects; nor has the District accounted for the substantial financial resources needed to make the transitions/consolidations happen.
The problem with Hite’s plan is not the “v1.0” tech-savvy lingo, indicating this is the first version, but rather that the plan does not inspire, provide a vision, or give the citizens of Philadelphia a visual image of what we can expect as our children matriculate through and graduate from our public schools. Action Plan v1.0 is not student-centered, but Hite-centered.
In his preface, Hite says six times “I have met,” “I have visited,” “I have addressed,” “I have listened,” “I have reviewed” and “I have learned.” Certainly he is to be applauded for his efforts over the past 100 days, but the problem is the superintendent is not an island unto himself. Education is a collaborative process, which includes students, parents, educators, administrators, community leaders and concerned citizens.
If there is one major difference of Hite’s plan compared to his predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, it is that “Imagine 2014” was developed in partnership with over 80 key stakeholders from the entire Philadelphia community. Over a period of months, these stakeholders met, discussed, debated, shared, collaborated, and ultimately produced a comprehensive community vision for all children in the School District of Philadelphia. The problem with Action Plan v1.0 is that is not a “we” plan, but an “I” plan.
Moreover, Hite’s plan describes the District as an “enterprise.” Such language immediately leads one to think of “a company organized for a commercial purpose.” If the District is viewed as an “enterprise” or a “commercial business,” then Action Plan v1.0 is extremely problematic and this would explain why a key strategy of the plan is to “become a top-quality charter school authorizer.”
From a fiscal standpoint, Hite’s plan candidly articulates the District’s financial woes and annual $250 million deficit that will hit $1.3 billion in the next five years. It makes it clear that the District’s deficit is the result of “reduced state funding, a broken system of local tax assessment, charter-driven growth in the total public school population without new revenue, and failure to reduce spending commensurate with the reduction in revenue.” Hite is right in some respects. The deficit has to be dealt with, but deficits aren’t dealt with by reduction in staff, programs and services alone. How are we spending the money that we do have?
Lastly, the plan does not provide a clear rationale for why politicians and taxpayers of the city of Philadelphia and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania should support the School District through increased revenues. Or, why should any parent have confidence that this system is primarily focused on educating his or her child?
An annual deficit of $250 million cannot be solved through school closings and continual budget cuts. Hite’s plan is singly focused on deficit-reduction and raises a breadth of questions: How will the plan reduce high school dropout rates? Increase graduation rates? Decrease truancy? Ensure that all children reach proficient levels in reading and math? Where is the “action plan” for teaching and learning? A plan absent of solutions to address these vital areas lacks heart for our children.
In sum, there are too many unknowns and outstanding questions in Action Plan v1.0. But it’s not all on Hite. At some point, the superintendent, the mayor, the governor, politicians and the citizens of Philadelphia will have to make a decision to support and educate our children through increased revenues and/or student-centered spending focused on educational goals and outcomes. Or they should tell our children and their parents the truth — that the balance sheet and bottom line take priority over delivering a quality education for every child in every community.
If the purpose of Action Plan v1.0 is to solely save the district money and get it back on sound fiscal ground, then Martin Luther King Jr. was right: “…education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.”
Beloved, we’ve been down this road before and will arrive at the same destination unless we have a passionate vision that is student-centered, fiscally sound, with a heart for our children. We cannot afford to drop the ball again. Our children’s dreams and future cannot wait for the next plan or the next Superintendent.
As always, keep the faith.
The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson is the senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.
Further probe unlikely for Evans, Archie in wake of city’s corruption report
Without a deeper investigation, state Rep. Dwight Evans and former SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie could emerge legally unscathed from the Martin Luther King scandal, continuing the city’s culture of corruption, said one critic.
“Philadelphians should be appalled by the report’s picture of backroom dealings and political strong-arming,” said Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the political watchdog group Committee of Seventy. “It is not enough to say that people in highly influential positions of public trust acted improperly. If there are no consequences for their conduct, they and others in the public arena will continue to believe they can act with impunity.”
Findings released by the city on Thursday threw back the curtain of secrecy that long cloaked the behind-the-scenes influence of Evans and Archie, who allegedly steered the School Reform Commission toward a company to which they both had ties.
Stalberg said a deeper probe is needed.
“We don’t know the complete story because Dwight Evans refused to cooperate with the investigation. The fact that he didn’t demands further inquiry by someone with subpoena power,” he said.
Only a court can determine if the allegations in the report rise to the level of criminal activity.
But, without public pressure, launching an investigation could be difficult.
A source close the mayor said he is unlikely to press the matter further.
“He’s not going to throw anybody under the bus,” said an administration official.
Whether anyone else will remains to be seen.
State Rep. Michael McGeehan, long a critic of the district, said that at the moment he saw no reason to press ahead with a deeper investigation.
“I’m not willing to say that at this point,” he said, adding that the report could spur legislators to push for reform. “This report really points out the fundamental need to change … the business-as-usual atmosphere.”
Auditor General Jack Wagner is already investigating SRC probing the buyout of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. An official in Wagner’s office said Friday that she was unsure whether the latest report would spur further investigation. Wagner was out of the office and unavailable for comment.
Calls to the district attorney and attorney general’s offices demonstrated the difficulty of launching such an investigation without political support.
“We’ve not even received this report so there is no way we can comment,” said Tasha Jameson, spokeswoman for D.A. Seth Williams. “We have to receive the report and we haven’t.”
An official with the state Attorney General Linda Kelly’s office said that the A.G. typically gets involved only in cases involving narcotics trafficking, insurance fraud, organized crime, consumer protection, gaming enforcement and issues that might affect multiple counties. He added that it usually investigates after a receiving a tip or at the referral of a district attorney.
That did not mean the attorney general would not look into the case to see if falls under its purview.
“It’s very important, from our view, that the law is followed,” said Nils Frederiksen, press secretary for the attorney general. “We’re aware of the report and certainly anything of this nature raises concerns but we’re legally prohibited from confirming the existence of an investigation.”
On Thursday afternoon, the city’s Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman released the results of her investigation into Archie and Evans’ roles in securing a contract for Foundations Inc., a New Jersey based non-profit, to operate Martin Luther King High School. The contract went to Foundations despite the fact that the school’s advisory committee recommended a Georgia based company, Mosaica, to run the school.
Markman concluded that their “actions in this matter have compromised the School District of Philadelphia’s ability to … garner public confidence.” At its heart, the report suggests that both men violated the District and, perhaps, the state’s ethics policy.
Both Evans and Archie blasted the integrity officer’s findings and said in separate statements issued Thursday that they had only the best interests of students at heart.
Evans’ enormous influence is evident in Markman’s report.
“Numerous people with whom we spoke told that Evans was a politically influential player whose wishes concerning [School District] matters could not easily be disregarded.”
It also quoted an email Archie sent to District officials: “I, along with my fellow commissioners were appointed by politicians and for the public to believe that politics is not a part of the education system when the only sources of the District’s revenue are local, state, and federal funds further evidences the results of ‘poor academic achievement’ on the part of certain adults.”
Markman laid out the District’s ethics policy in her report and pointed out that since the School Reform Commission is a state body, members are subject to the state Ethics Code. Both bar public officials from engaging in conflicts of interest, which are defined as: “use by a public official or public employee of the authority of his office or employment or any confidential information received through his holding office or employment for the private pecuniary benefit of himself … or a business with which he is associated.”
“To establish that a public official or employee is associated with the business, it must be shown that he, or a member of his immediate family, is a director, officer, owner or employee or has a financial interest in the business,” she said.
Both men had financial ties to Foundations Inc.
Archie, on March 16, recused himself from a vote over the future of MLK High, citing the fact that Duane Morris had done business with Foundations. He told Markman that neither he nor Duane Morris had represented the firm since 2002. He also told Markman that he and Duane Morris represented Evans in several legal actions.
Evans’ ties are well documented in campaign finance forms that show he has accepted campaign donations from Foundations Inc., and its top officials. A routine Google search turns up donations totaling more than $63,000 since 2000.
Penalties for ethics violations vary widely from fines — as little as $100 for violating the state Sunshine Law — to criminal charges.
Mayor’s proposal would generate additional $94M for education
School commissioners this week asked City Council members to go along with Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to implement the Actual Value Initiative this year so the district would receive an additional $94 million.
Without it, said School Reform Commission Chair Pedro Ramos, the district would face a $312 million budget deficit rather than the $218 million shortfall that is anticipated at the moment.
“Without those funds, our gap next year would grow to over $300 million, which … is unthinkable,” Ramos told Council members Tuesday during Council hearings on the district’s budget. “We believe [we have] a realistic path back to structural financial balance.” Commissioners and district officials gave each Council member a large binder that broke down district $2.6 billion budget by school and included line items of things that are likely to be cut without the added funding. In addition, to a fiscal budget for 2013, the district also brought to Council its restructuring plans, which include the scheduled closure of 40 schools this year, a five-year plan that included a projected $1.1 billion deficit over that period and 24 more school closures.
Much of Council’s concern stems from the mayor’s plan to move the basis of property taxes from traditional assessed values based on millage to full market value — AVI. The shift is expected to increase property taxes for many Philadelphians, which makes many Council members even more uncertain about extra money for schools.
Council members are cautiously weighing all their options as they look at the district’s spending plan and warned school commissioners that they intended to give unusual scrutiny to the district’s figures.
“We have a school district that is all but broken,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chair of Council’s education committee. “We have been misled for years … every year the district returns with open hands. We need change.”
Last year, under the leadership of former school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the district coaxed $53 million in additional funding from Council. But, many Council members felt she tricked them when it became clear after the fact that despite Ackerman’s statements to the contrary during the budget process, the district did have money to pay for full-day kindergarten. Ackerman used the threat of eliminating full-day kindergarten as her primary bargaining chip in budget talks with Council.
The additional funds came from a property tax increase — the third consecutive year that real estate taxes went up. The experience has left Council gun shy.
“Where is this extra $94 million going?” asked Council President Darrell Clarke about this year’s additional monies, adding: “I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t think you need more dollars.”
Ramos said the district was simply providing Council with a snapshot of its finances.
“This is the reality of the state of district,” he said. “It doesn’t go away regardless of who is in this seat or your seat. The fundamentals don’t change. We’re showing in practical terms where things are today.”
Ramos emphasized that the SRC is examining its budget options and that the numbers discussed this week were “far from final.”
Though Council members asked many questions — including questions about the search for a new superintendent — transparency and accountability was a re-occurring theme.
“I want to make sure that whatever we do this year it includes long-term accountability, said Maria Quinones Sanchez, in statements echoed by several of her colleagues.
Traditionally, Council has little oversight of the SRC.
Councilman Dennis O’Brien, a former state representative, said the real responsibility rested not with Council but with the mayor and Gov. Tom Corbett, because they appoint SRC members.
“We have a dysfunctional conversation here,” he said. “We have an SRC presenting assumptions that only the mayor and governor can respond to. We are here as window dressing. There are two people who can change the conversation and that is the governor and the mayor.”
Ramos said the SRC has pressed the governor for his support.
“We’ve asked the governor for support in every way we can,” Ramos said. “We are asking the governor to work with the SRC on fiscal sustainability, but this can’t be done in quick sound bites.”
Council is conducting its budget hearings as a committee of the whole, and the education budget hearings drew every member of Council with the exception of Councilman Brian O’Neill.
Armbrister resigns, Corbett names Houstoun replacement
Denise McGregor Armbrister became the third member of the School Reform Commission to resign within a month, her resignation Wednesday coming on the heels of the departures of Chairman Robert L. Archie and Johnny Irizarry.
Not long after the ink on her resignation had dried, Gov. Tom Corbett moved to fill the vacancy with Thursday’s nomination of Feather O’Connor Houstoun.
“Feather Houstoun’s experience and depth of knowledge in public service will be a tremendous asset to help lead Philadelphia’s educational community,” Corbett said. “She understands many of the needs and challenges facing the children who attend our state’s largest public school system, and her experience running large public systems will bring a special expertise to the SRC.”
In June, Corbett named former City Solicitor Pedro Ramos as his choice to replace Archie as SRC chair.
However, Ramos is still awaiting state Senate confirmation. It is believed that Houstoun and Ramos will go through their state Senate confirmation hearings simultaneously to expedite the reformation of the SRC with its full complement of five members.
Earlier this month, Mayor Michael Nutter appointed Rutgers University-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett to the SRC. He followed that up with the appointment of arts ambassador Lorene Carey. Joseph Dworetzky, whose term expires in 2014, is a gubernatorial appointment and now the longest tenured member of the Commission. He has been a member of the SRC for two years.
All of Armbrister’s children have been educated in the Philadelphia public schools, and she still has a daughter in the 11th grade in the district. In a recent phone conversation, Armbrister, who had already served four years on the SRC and would have seen her term expire in January, said she wanted to move out of the way so the governor could make an appointment and therefore move the Senate hearing ahead more quickly.
“I’m hoping this will expedite the process, that a fifth commission member will be named and the confirmation process can quickly begin,” Armbrister said. “It is complex and it is time-consuming. It is a lot of work.”
As priorities for the SRC, Armbrister mentioned the continued efforts to close the $680 million budget gap that has reduced the number of workers at headquarters by 50 percent and the number of employees district-wide by 30 percent. She touched on the huge undertaking that is the facilities master plan, a key component of the school district’s five-year strategic plan, Imagine 2014.
She also said that while the job of an SRC member is “extremely challenging work,” she did not suggest, as some have, that it should be a paid position.
“I want to say that I felt honored and humbled to take on this responsibility,” Armbrister, speaking of her tenure, said. “The work of the SRC is incredibly honorable work that, I assure you, none of the people whom I worked with took the responsibilities lightly. However, I don’t think that it should be a paid position.
“I owe a great deal of gratitude to my fellow commissioners,” Armbrister continued. “Hopefully the new and reconstituted commission can be put in place quickly and the SRC can go about the very crucial job of providing the children in the school district the best possible education. Nothing is more important than that. Nothing.”
“Feather Houstoun is one of Philadelphia’s most dedicated and accomplished public servants, and her appointment will help the SRC move forward with its difficult and critical work,” Nutter said. “While serving at the William Penn Foundation, Feather left an undeniably positive and lasting impact on the entire Philadelphia region. As a SRC member, she would be able to bring her expertise and passion to improving the lives of Philadelphia’s students.
“We look forward to the Pennsylvania Senate taking up the nominations for Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun,” she said. “Their quick confirmations will allow the new SRC to get on with their important work of identifying the next superintendent of the district and managing through complex budget and facilities issues.”
Houstoun, 65, is president of the William Penn Foundation. She has been the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare under Gov. Tom Ridge; worked as the chief financial officer for SEPTA; and served as treasurer of the state of New Jersey.
Councilman Oh praises superintendent’s handling of case
Two city council members weighed in on the Samantha Pawlucy controversy Thursday — the day after Mitt Romney called the Philadelphia 16 year-old who has attracted national attention for her support of his candidacy.
Councilman David Oh lauded school Superintendent William Hite for his handling of the incident while taking a jab at Hite’s predecessor — Arlene Ackerman.
“I find it very reassuring that the school district is taking action on it,” Oh said. “I think in contrast to the prior school district, in terms of their failing in dealing with an incident in which Chinese students were taken out of a classroom and then beaten, and then the principal excused that behavior and action was not taken for many months, this is reassuring to the parents in Philadelphia.”
Pawlucy was reportedly mocked by her geometry teacher at Charles Carroll High School for wearing a Romney T-shirt in class on Sept. 28. The incident made her feel so uncomfortable, she told school officials, that she is now transferring to another school.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that Romney called Pawlucy at home. Though officials with the Romney campaign confirmed the call they declined to provide details. The family would not comment.
Councilman Dennis O’Brien, an advocate for kids with disabilities, said the incident highlighted the issue of bullying — this time by a teacher.
“My kids — kids with disabilities — are often victimized in numerous settings and with little response,” he said. “This offers us all the opportunity to look at bullying. The fact that we tolerate this is the beginning and the root of all this bullying.”
The girl briefly returned to Charles Carroll High School in the city's Port Richmond section Tuesday. But her father says she never actually made it to class because she felt uncomfortable.
In other news, Council President Darrell Clarke decided not to introduce a proposal, put forth by the mayor’s office, that would create a new hybrid pension plan for new city employees.
“We want to know what the potential implications are,” Clarke said. “We anticipate introducing this bill in the future, but I want to understand what is we’re putting in the hopper.”
Last month Mayor Michael Nutter announced a new pay and benefits package for about 5,500 employees that would include changes to their pensions. But, in order to create the less expensive plan, the administration needs council’s approval.
We knew this day would come — they’ve been warning us, and firing shots across the bow for almost two years. Yet, now that the day is upon us, we weep, tear our clothing, and wail our shock and sadness from the rooftops.
The School District of Philadelphia is officially shutting down nearly 40 neighborhood schools. That’s nearly one out of every six schools the district runs.
Another fact that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise is that the brunt of those school closings are borne by poor neighborhoods who, in a just world, would be getting more educational resources, not fewer.
Perhaps gone forever are neighborhood hubs Edward Bok and University City high schools, and my alma mater Anna Howard Shaw middle school. For a complete list of closing schools, and the comprehensive story on the decision and reactions, read my colleague Damon Williams’ stellar reporting on the front page of this issue.
When you read Damon’s story, or talk about the issue with your friends and neighbors, you’ll notice that there’s plenty of blame to go around, and no shortage of finger pointing. The hard truth is buried in there somewhere between the rhetoric and the bluster – there are simply fewer kids in our school buildings, many of which are old and crumbling. And the truth of what’s happened to public education in Philadelphia over the past few years only gets more inconvenient from there.
Tens of thousands of parents enrolled their children in charter schools, hoping to give them a better chance at a quality education. Thousands more picked up and left the city altogether, retreating to suburban districts for the same reason. That left the district with many more schools than they have students.
Millions of dollars were squandered on consultants, contractors, and others who saw the school district as a cash cow, and lined up to get their share of milk. To be fair, many of those consultants were dedicated professionals who turned in quality product for a fair price, but many more were just the typical political insiders and power brokers who took the district, and by extension the kids, for a long ride.
We had personnel shakeups, scandals, and bad blood with each of a succession of superintendents, from David Hornbeck to Paul Vallas to Arlene Ackerman, the woman the whole city loved to hate. And with each new regime came new promises, new slogans and catch phrases, but no substantive change to the climate of greed and opportunism.
The children, those students we all claim to care so very much about, were last in line for the benefits – and the money. Even the Obama stimulus, a temporary stopgap, went through our pockets like a drunken sailor’s paycheck.
Meanwhile, no one seemed to take notice that half of those students don’t even graduate from high school, the bare minimum standard in today’s tough job market. And of those who do manage to make it through, many are woefully unprepared for life in the real world, where you are judged, fairly or not, by your ability to read, write, spell, comprehend and follow instructions, and perform basic math skills.
We can all argue until we’re blue in the face about whose fault it is, and where the money went. We can blame parents, teachers, violent movies, BET, and rap lyrics – but sadly folks, we’re way past that point. The money is gone, the schools are half empty, and the kids aren’t any smarter. And if they aren’t getting a quality education now, do you think belt-tightening austerity measures will make that situation better or worse?
That’s where we are now. Yes, it sounds bad, but not hopeless.
If your neighborhood school is on the list of doom, there’s still time to try to save it. But you can’t just start screaming into bullhorns and marching on district headquarters and think that’s the answer, because it isn’t.
When South Philly’s Stanton Elementary found itself on the preliminary list for closure last year, parents and teachers mobilized. They banded together, shored up the needed programs, and proved to the district, beyond doubt, that Stanton was a necessary part of the community. They demonstrated, with hard evidence, that their school was vital, and that the kids were learning at a better than average pace.
And while the district may choose to ignore angry demonstrators, they cannot ignore hard evidence and a mobilized citizenry. The Stanton parents, students, and teachers proved that when they successfully saved their school.
And with any luck, they can serve as a model to others.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.