Hundreds protest gas industry conference, proposed regulations
Opponents of a natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing — or more familiarly as “fracking” — have promised to “shut down” an October meeting of the Delaware River Basin Commission.
“You will not frack the Delaware River,” thundered Josh Fox, director of the documentary “Gasland,” which chronicled the environmental damage of fracking, as a crowd of hundreds outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Wednesday roared their agreement by chanting “shut them down.”
Opponents contend that fracking has polluted the air and groundwater and posed an environmental and health threat.
Hundreds of protestors threatened civil disobedience.
“If they’re going to start drilling, we’re going to shut them down,” Fox said, adding they planned a large scale protest modeled on civil rights protests.
The commission is expected to adopt natural gas drilling regulations at a specially scheduled meeting October 21 at its West Trenton, N.J., headquarters. The rules will regulate fracking at an estimated 22,000 gas wells in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware on land that drains into the Delaware River, which provides water to 15 million people in those four states — including 1.5 million in Philadelphia.
“The October 21 meeting will not include a public hearing,” stated a notice of the special meeting on its website.
The public — including two members of Philadelphia City Council and the president of Pittsburgh’s City Council — had plenty to say about it this week.
“If they tell you they are going to allow fracking in your watershed then it’s time to say, ‘You know what, we are taking a stand now,’” Fox shouted. “If they permit it anyway and we show up at the well sites and blockade the well sites, that’s the way we are going to win. That’s the way every single one of these struggles has been won from the suffragettes to the civil rights movement to labor unions. Every single advancement that was won in our civilization was won by one tool — civil disobedience.”
As Fox thundered and the crowd cheered, members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition gathered inside the convention center.
As industry officials slipped into the new main entrance on North Broad Street, protestors were corralled along both sides of Arch Street, nearly a block east at 13th Street. Approximately 1,600 industry officials were expected at the two day conference, which included appearances by Gov. Tom Corbett and former governors Tom Ridge, now a paid industry spokesman, and Ed Rendell.
One energy company official accused protestors of “fear mongering.”
“Was anybody hurt? Was there any permanent or even temporary environmental damage? No. No. And, no,” said Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corp.
Outside they disagreed.
Craig Sautner of Dimock in Susquehanna County warned of the possibility of a large scale natural disaster. He spoke from personal experience. Three years ago his well was poisoned by fracking and he now has to get his drinking water and water for showering and cleaning shipped in by the natural gas company.
“Here’s what my water looks like,” said Sautner, holding up a glass that looked more like it was filled with cloudy beer. “They were doing vertical drilling and something collapsed and all the gas migrated. Now, the gas company said that they did not cause the problem. Enough already. We’ve got to do something about this.”
Many Philadelphians view the issue as an upstate one, but stories like Sautner’s have galvanized City Council, which, earlier this year supported a moratorium on drilling.
“Anything that happens in Allegheny County or Centre County, anything happens in Bradford County, it also affects what happens in Philadelphia County,” said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who called the issue a public health issue. “We get it.”
She promised her support and urged others to join the chorus against drilling.
“It takes collective voices to move the needle,” Brown said. “We can’t do it alone. It takes all of us to send a message.”
City Council this week heard of plans for a new eco-friendly trash facility planned for Northeast Philadelphia that officials said would guarantee about $5 million a year in business for minority- and women-owned firms.
That figure hinges on Council’s approval of a new waste disposal contract that features the construction of a plant that would convert the city’s trash into fuel. It will be one of only two such plants in the nation.
“We’re going to see many benefits from this new deal,” Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson told Council. “We were in competition with other cities for this innovation.”
Members learned of the plans for the $22 million facility Wednesday during hearings on two bills that give contracts worth $256 million over the next four years to Waste Management and Covanta 4 Recovery for hauling and getting rid of the city’s trash. Tolson said that represented a savings of about $7 million a year. In addition, she projected that the plant would generate about $1.25 million annually in tax revenue.
The plant, which is expected to be built later this year in the Northeast, harvests recyclables from the city’s 143,000 tons of trash then turns the remaining solids into fuel pellets that can replace coal at chemical manufacturing plants, cement kilns and electric generation plants.
“Now instead of that trash going to a landfill it will be going to a waste to energy facility, or this spec fuel plant,” she said. “Under these contracts no pre-processed waste will be landfilled.”
According to Tolson, the plant, which will be owned by Waste Management, would process 500 to 1,200 tons of trash a day, and produce enough fuel to generate power for 150,000 homes. It would also create 25 full-time jobs, most of them skilled jobs like equipment operator and plant operator.
Residue created by the making of the pellets would go to landfills.
The gain for minority businesses would come in hauling the trash, Tolson said, adding that the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity had signed off on the deal.
Both companies have agreed to give their hauling contracts to minority- or women-owned firms, specified in the contracts, but not yet named publicly. That would provide $5 million a year in business for those firms — which would collect trash and haul the waste to other facilities.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown asked how the city verified that participation rate. Tolson replied that the OEO handled the verification, again noting that it has signed off on the plan.
Waste Management has a test facility in San Antonio, Texas, and the company’ s vice president for the mid-Atlantic region, Tara Hemmer, said the company is creating a market for the fuel, noting that all of the pellets created in Texas had been sold.
Tolson extolled the plans as “a major step in the greening of our city.”
A vote on the proposal is expected next month.
Councilman Jim Kenney asked if any of the jobs at the plant could be given to ex-offenders.
Hemmer said Waste Management would be open to the idea, but noted that most of the jobs were skilled positions requiring some sort of training.
“It’s really very specialized equipment,” Hemmer said. “They’re higher paying, skilled jobs with a minimal number of entry level positions.”
Overall, the contracts would not create any new jobs for the city, because the new deal eliminates a contract with a company called Republic that operates two trash facilities that currently employ about 25 people.
Mayor urges bill to indefinitely extend successful safeguard
On Thursday the Nutter administration rolled out a plan to permanently and significantly tighten Philadelphia’s curfew laws with earlier hours for minors ages 13 years old and younger.
The mayor’s plan was introduced in City Council on Thursday and follows earlier initiatives started over the summer to eliminate the problem of violent flash mobs. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison, who was present when City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown brought the bill before Council, said that if local lawmakers pass the measure, children 13 years old and younger would have to be at home by 8 p.m.
“We heard from the public that the efforts we made over the summer had worked. It raised the level of attention from the parents and they wanted to know what the specific rules were and be able to have us suggest what the rules should be,” Gillison said. “We did some studies and we think this graduated approach was the way to go. Children ages 13 and younger have to be home by 8 p.m. Minors ages 14 to 15 have to be in by 9 p.m. and minors ages 16 to 17 have to be home by 10 p.m. — that’s during the school year and throughout the week, seven days a week. During the summer it would be extended by one hour for the same ages. This is for parents to understand what we expect from them — because we’re going to hold them accountable.”
Gillison said the new curfew laws would be citywide and that the changes would simplify the restrictions that are currently in place.
According to Gillison, the response from police officers has also been positive. He said that officers report they’ve been interacting with the community and communicating to parents that what the administration wants is for them to stay with their kids and not let them run around unsupervised.
“What we need them to do is take responsibility, and parents in this city have done that — they’ve stepped up. What we’re trying to do with this bill is to open up and finish the dialog. This is but one part of an entire holistic approach. But we wanted to make sure with a new City Council that this is what the curfew needed to be, these are the standards and we know the parents of this city are going to comply.”
Gillison said that the city is maintaining the extended hours for recreation centers and is working with the Youth Commission to increase the number of activities for the winter. He said that the last time he checked the statistics there were between 200 and 300 youths picked up off the streets who had violated curfew.
The good news is that law enforcement isn’t getting the same kids.
“We haven’t seen recidivists,” he said. “This is not to penalize the parents, we want them to pay attention to their children. As a result, when we bring them the first time it’s a warning — ‘Come get your kid.’ That inconvenience alone has been enough for the parents to step up. This isn’t a revenue bill; we don’t want to fine people. What we want is for parents to take responsibility for their children. We haven’t had to take the second step and fine anyone.”
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown hosted her fifth Annual “Next Generation of Leaders: Rising Stars” event at City Hall on Wednesday in the Mayor’s Reception Room to a standing room only crowd. CBS3’s Erika von Tiehl served as mistress of ceremonies and recording artist Carol Riddick entertained the crowd with a performance of the song “A Better Me,” from her album “Moments Like This.”
Speakers included Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes, CEO of the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania, whose keynote address focused on the “Power of Women” and challenged the audience to “Each one, reach one, teach one,” by seeking out young women to mentor, and to “be informed by history, but don’t be a slave to tradition” as they try to put their own stamp on the world.
Mayor Michael A. Nutter pledged to work with the Councilwoman Brown in finding opportunities to challenge gender inequality. “You are all change agents in your community,” said Nutter. “You will be the next CEOs, university presidents, school administrators and there will be a mayor — a female mayor — of the city of Philadelphia. (We) expect to do something about the complete lack of female, minority representation on corporate, private, non-profit boards, and the CEO suites of those perspective organizations. We are tremendously well-represented in the general population, and tremendously under-represented in the many, many organizations that employ thousands of people, make decisions on a daily basis that affect hundreds of thousands of people lives, and millions, if not billions, of dollars. If we are truly to be the fully integrated society that we’re striving to be here in America, then that must extend to the corporate suite and board rooms, and to those that are high-level decision makers throughout the public sector and the non-profit sector.”
Nutter’s director of communications and public relations, Desiree Peterkin Bell, gave the initial keynote address and told a chilling story of her post-911 career working for Mayors Michael Bloomberg in New York City and Corey Booker in Newark, N.J. She challenged awardees to “make themselves uncomfortable” as they climb the ladder. “Don’t spend major time with minor people,” advised Reynolds Brown, as she encouraged attendees to use Twitter to share their favorite moments and inspirational quotes from the evening. The list of “Next Generation of Leaders: Rising Stars” 2012 awardees are: Heather S. Blakeslee, Sabrina Brooks, Angela Giampolo, Esq., Rachel M. Keene, Esq., Melissa Kim, Yocasta Lora, Noel Roberts, Dana Rubenstein, Erin Trent and Tina Wells.
Despite the campaign finance scandal that’s broken over her head, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown seems secure in her leadership position on city council — for the moment.
Earlier this week the city’s Board of Ethics released a settlement agreement with Brown, in which she agreed to pay a record $48,834 fine for financial improprieties — including using campaign funds to repay a personal loan.
The embattled councilwoman — once considered a strong possible candidate for mayor — could be stripped of her leadership post by a vote of council. Published reports have suggested that her council colleagues are discussing the possibility.
But none would say so on the record.
“Not that I know of,” said council President Darrell Clarke, when asked Thursday if there was a movement afoot to remove her as majority whip, a post Clarke once held.
Majority Leader Curtis Jones was among those who declined, on Thursday, to speak on the matter publicly.
Earlier in the week, he told reporters that the Ethics Board report was not grounds to remove Brown.
“I don’t see where her leadership within council, as whip, which is defined as the ability to garner votes, being able to move legislation, is impacted by the findings of the board,” he said Tuesday.
Speaking off the record, another council member said that council might be spurred to action if the report resulted in any more allegations, criminal or civil charges.
Brown admitted that she used campaign funds to pay back a personal loan from Chaka Fattah Jr. — the son of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah — using the money to stave off foreclosure after she fell behind in mortgage payments.
The news prompted almost immediate calls for her to resign from her council seat, and even spawned a website urging Philadelphians to recall her in a special election.
Speaking to reporters after Thursday’s council meeting, Brown said she did not have any indication that her colleagues intended to strip her of her post.
“No,” she replied tersely when pressed by reporters.
Council leaders were aware that she was the subject of an Ethics Board investigation, she said, adding that now everyone on council was aware.
Asked if she was concerned, Brown added, “I feel good that I will be measured on the totality of my work product. I feel good in knowing that consistently, in my 13 years here, I’ve made not good choices but very good choices. I feel good in knowing that I was very honest, I was very forthcoming [with the Ethics Board.]
She referred reporters with more questions back to a statement her office released Tuesday.
“I will do everything in my power to make amends,” she said in a statement released by her chief of staff David Forde.
In a statement, the councilwoman admitted to a number of “errors.”
“It is clear that there were a number of errors that occurred during the last campaign,” she said in the statement.” I take full responsibility for the conduct of my campaign and have taken corrective steps to ensure that future reporting is clear and accurate.”
The headline grabber was the loan from Fattah Jr. — known as Chip — which came in December 2010, just after Brown made a phone call to his congressman father seeking assistance in the effort to save her home. Shortly after the phone call, Fattah Jr. loaned Brown $3,300 — the final chunk of money she needed to stall bank action against her home. The loan was later repaid by the Friends of Blondell Reynolds Brown committee.
In campaign filings, the settlement found, Brown lied about the repayment, listing it as a payment for printing services. Additionally, the report noted that Fattah Jr. was employed by a for-profit school that relied on city council approval for its funding, which came through the school district. At the time, the school had a $4.5 million contract with the district.
“I … must take full responsibility for an error in judgment regarding the repayment of a loan, through campaign funds, for a personal matter,” Brown said in the statement. “I have subsequently made the Friends of Blondell Reynolds Brown whole through reimbursing that amount with my personal funds.”
Fattah Jr.’s phone number was no longer active. The congressman did not respond to requests for comment.
The loan from Fattah Jr. was not the only mistake Brown made.
Documents released by the Ethics Board — 25 pages in all — showed Brown’s campaign finance reports contained more than 170 “errors,” which the board broke down into 165 “material omissions” and six “material misstatements.”
A cursory accounting of the omissions and misstatements showed that Brown collected but failed to properly account for at least $46,600. She also inflated account balances for campaign accounts.
Among the omissions outlined by the settlement was a $4,000 donation from the Friends of Marian Tasco, and in the next reporting cycle a $4,000 debt to the Friends of Marian Tasco. A $2,500 gift from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was also on the list of donations that were not reported. Brown also failed to report a $150 donation from former SRC chairman Robert Archie and $250 from Evelyn Smalls, the president and CEO of United Bank.
The settlement, announced late Monday, also included a number of other incidents where Brown admitted to playing fast and loose with campaign funds. In several instances, she pocketed campaign contributions; in others, her campaign took amounts over the legal limit from a campaign related political action committee.
In one example, Brown took a signed, blank check from entrepreneur Sid Booker, then made it out for a $1,000 and deposited it in her personal bank account. Similar incidents, where Brown took campaign money and put it in her personal account, happened on four different occasions netting her $1,400.
Ethics officials noted that Brown voluntarily disclosed some of the transactions.
The report has already resulted in the firing of one city employee named in the settlement documents. John D. McDaniel was fired Tuesday from his job at the airport, where he was employed as an assistant director with a salary of more than $87,000. In 2010, he was Brown’s campaign manager.
McDaniel had also worked for Mayor Michael Nutter, who, after firing him, issued this statement.
“I have known John McDaniel for a long time, and certainly I’m disappointed by his actions and admissions as outlined in the Ethics Board report,” said the mayor. “The dismissal was “imperative to ensure the integrity of our government and our personnel,” he said.
Promising that it won’t happen again, City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown this week gave a detailed explanation of the circumstances surrounding the missteps that led to her agreeing to pay a record fine for violating city campaign finance laws.
“You have to face the music,” Brown said. “I have a daughter looking at me, my mother and other young women. Part of leadership is saying, ‘I messed up.’”
Brown sat down with The Philadelphia Tribune for an exclusive interview to discuss the circumstances surrounding her agreement to pay more than $40,000 in fines for ethics violations.
In addition to discussing her role in the violations, Brown assured her constituents – voters all across the city – that she has put safeguards in place to insure that something like this never happens again.
“We are expected to conduct ourselves to a higher standard,” she said. “I fell down, and I’m more disappointed with myself than anyone else could ever be. I asked to do this work, and you take the hits that come with it and you don’t complain.”
As an example of her resolve, the councilwoman noted that she will file her next round of campaign reports Friday -- a week late thanks to an extension -- because she and her staff are going over them with a fine tooth comb. They will be correct and include every detail, she said.
“I am in the weeds in a very meticulous way,” Brown said. “This time, I’m going through every single page.”
Brown herself is financially responsible for personal violations. Her campaign will pay fines related to her committee. In total, she will pay in eight $5,000 installments until the end of 2014.
“I have to go out and raise the money, ask people to invest in me again,” she said.
In sitting down with the Tribune, Brown said she wanted to present the facts in a broader context.
It is not the first time the suddenly embattled councilwoman has been the subject of an ethics investigation. She faced a similar problem, though on much smaller scale in 2011. Then, as now, she agreed to pay a fine for violating city campaign finance rules.
In both cases, political operative John McDaniel was involved. And Brown, while taking full responsibility for actions detailed in the 25-page settlement agreement, said McDaniel was at the core of her troubles.
To outsiders the two incidents may seem separate but they are related, said Brown - all part of a hazy year or so of personal tumult that started with her divorce.
“My life was stupid for a year and a half,” she said.
Her current difficulties started in August 2010, when Brown learned that her ex-husband had stopped making mortgage payments on the home she shares with her daughter and mother. The bank was threatening to foreclose – its second effort apparently – and Brown owed more than $40,000 in back payments, penalties and interest for payments not made since January.
The news sent her scrambling for cash.
“In a move of desperation, I had to figure out how I could come up with $40,000 to save my home,” she said. She tapped her pension, her daughter’s college fund and took loans from friends.
By mid-November she’d raised most of the cash, she but remained $3,300 short. She turned to a longtime friend for help. That friend happened to be U.S Rep. Chaka Fattah.
“That was a misjudgment, because in the eyes of others he’s not a longtime friend – he’s the congressman,” said Brown.
Fattah in turn asked his son, Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr., to give Brown a check, which he did.
Brown got caught up on her mortgage payments. And then, aside from asking McDaniel, who was her campaign manager, to pay back the loan from a campaign account, which he did in December, she forgot about it.
Looking back now, Brown realizes that she should not have told McDaniel to pay back the debt out of campaign funds.
“When you’re going through that sense of desperation and crisis you do a lot of things that don’t make sense,” she said. “I did not think through, adequately and clearly, that this was inappropriate. I was not thinking through a lot of things clearly.”
Brown said she didn’t realize that McDaniel had cut the check and recorded it as a payment to a printing company.
It was almost two years later, when Brown heard about an FBI investigation into Fattah Jr. that the loan re-entered her mind.
She knew that McDaniel, who faced questions about ethics violations in 2003 in an unrelated matter and, in yet another incident, agreed to pay back $13,000 to a nonprofit from which he had allegedly stolen the money, had a questionable history when she hired him.
“I believe in second chances,” she said. “Our relationship goes back to 1984. I always had faith and trust in John.”
McDaniel, however, continues to attract the attention of authorities, who are less forgiving. He was named Wednesday in a federal investigation in which U.S. officials allege he stole $100,000 from a political action committee linked to Brown.
“I don’t take responsibility for John McDaniel,” she said, declining to comment on that investigation. She stuck to recounting her own story.
After learning that Fattah Jr. was under investigation in the spring of 2012, Brown called McDaniel to make sure he had done as instructed.
“I said, “Please tell me you recorded that $3,300 transaction on my expense report,’” she said. “He told me no.”
It was then that Brown, as noted in her recent settlement with the Ethics Board, decided on her own to confess to ethics officials.
Though the incident involving the Fattahs has been the center of the brouhaha, the ethics report also noted numerous other violations. In a few, Brown took checks and deposited them in her personal account.
Sloppy bookkeeping is how the councilwoman explained that, telling the Tribune that the checks were made out to her personally, and she endorsed each of them over to her campaign committee – Friends of Blondell Reynolds Brown.
“It was sloppy paperwork. Period,” she said.
A non-disclosure clause in the settlement agreement forbids Brown from criticizing its findings but her mood turned sour when she discussed those checks. In addition, the councilwoman pointed out that the subjects of ethics investigations are free to refute allegations in a report until it is released.
After that they must remain silent.
Ultimately, Brown is determined to avoid getting mired in the scandal. Her position as council’s majority whip appears safe - as does her seat on council. She’s looking forward.
“I’m not fretting about it,” she said. “You have to work hard again to rebuild your reputation. I want to get back to the work that gives me a lot of personal and professional joy.”
She hopes that her constituents can do the same.
“I would hope that they would look at my record, and ultimately I hope that’s what people measure me by. This politics stuff comes and goes.”
More than 300 friends and supporters recently gathered for the 12th “Annual Party for the People” hosted by the Honorable Marian B. Tasco, 9th District Councilwoman and Majority Leader of the City of Philadelphia. The much anticipated fall event was held at H&H Banquet Hall in Germantown. “We get together to party and boogie for old time’s sake. Twelve years later and it is still a great party. It provides an opportunity for people from all over the City to become better acquainted with candidates running for the various offices in the upcoming election as well our distinguished elected officials. People look forward to the event and tell me often they can’t wait until the next one,” Tasco said.
Councilwoman Tasco has earned a reputation as one of Philadelphia's most respected, influential and effective elected officials. She is also well known for maintaining a sense of humility and being accessible to her constituents. Elected to serve her sixth term as City Council Representative for the 9th District in November 2007, she represents more than 150,000 residents in Philadelphia’s Northeast and Northwest sections.
Historically, Councilwoman Tasco is distinguished as the first African American elected Philadelphia City Commissioner, serving from 1983 to 1987. In addition to serving as Councilperson, she is the current ward leader for the renowned 50th Ward, and was unanimously elected by the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee to represent Pennsylvania on the Democratic National Committee. In January 2008 she was unanimously elected Majority Leader by her colleagues.
Tasco’s Council colleagues on board who lent their support at the upbeat affair included: Councilwoman-at-Large Blondell Reynolds Brown, Councilman-at Large Bill Green and Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones-Sanchez. Congressman Robert Brady, Judge Jimmie Moore, state Representative Cherelle L. Parker, Judge James DeLeon and City Commissioner Anthony Clark.
Robert L. Archie Jr., partner at Duane Morris LLP; John F. White Jr., president and CEO of The Consortium, Inc.; Ahmeenah Young, president and CEO of The Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority; Michael Days, The Philadelphia Inquirer managing editor; Sid Booker, well known local businessman and entrepreneur; Sam Staten Jr., business manager of Laborers’ Union Local 332 and Donald “Ducky” Birts of Congressman Brady’s office were also spotted in the crowd. A number of candidates in the upcoming November 2011 Election attended. Those individuals included: Cindy Bass, candidate for the 8th council district seat; candidates for judicial seats: Vincent Johnson, Diana Anhalt, Charles Ehrlich and City Council- at-Large candidate David Oh. Ward leaders Pat Parkinson, Sharon Losier, Bob Dellavella, Bill Dolbow and Elaine Tomlin were also “Out & About.”
Other community leaders and non-profit heads recognized by Councilwoman Tasco were Dr. Yu of the Korean Community Development Center and Jeff Hackett, president of the Sturgis Advisory Council.
Just a few others enjoying music and great food, catered by Diane Hughes, were: Michele Stevenson, Kellan White, Reggie Ellis, Lenora James and Derek and Cynthia Green.
Congratulations to Councilwoman Tasco for her extraordinary leadership and dedication to her constituents and the entire City of Philadelphia!
Have a great week “Out & About” in Philadelphia, everyone!
The African American Museum in Philadelphia’s 36th Anniversary Heritage Gala was held on Thursday, March 1 at the Marriott Hotel-Center City to honor Artistic Director Judith Jamison of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown, state Sen. Vincent Hughes and his wife activist/actress/author Sheryl Lee Ralph.
The evening began with a silent auction reception featuring music from “A New Perspective,” a Delaware Valley-based youth jazz ensemble. Other entertainment included dance performances from Rennie Harris Puremovement and Philadanco. The program highlighted the museum’s theme, “Breakthrough Black Culture,” for an audience of 600 guests.
Philadelphia Representative Melanie Johnson spoke in lieu of Mayor Michael Nutter, who indicated in a prior statement: “This evening you will celebrate the theme ‘Breakthrough Black Culture’ which reflects the challenges and triumphs African Americans have experienced in American history. It also showcases the Museum’s history of presenting educational and cultural experiences for the hundreds of thousands of visitors that have attended the Museum over three and a half decades.”
Upon accepting the 2012 Community Service Award, Sen. Hughes and his spouse underscored the importance of HUV/AIDS Awareness, with Ralph providing a heartfelt song upon acceptance of their award. In introducing the honoree video presentation, it was announced that Jamison, 68, was ill and would not be in attendance. NBC10’s Lori Wilson conducted a warm conversation with Brown while the attendees dined on beef, chicken, mashed sweet potatoes and asparagus.
The selections of Judith Jamison and Joan Myers Brown as honorees made the 2012 Gala particularly meaningful for Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, a former professional dancer who has deep admiration for both of these talented women. “Judith Jamison opened the doors for many African-American dancers to not just be employed, but to become the industry standard bearers for excellence,” said Reynolds Brown. “She turned the eyes of the world to her studio, and shined a laser beam on her dancers and their work. Joan Myers Brown has been Philadelphia’s cultural ambassador for over 40 years. As a former dancer in her company, Joan and Philadanco allowed me to travel the world to promote Philadelphia and the art of dance — an experience I will never forget. I am indebted to Joan Myers Brown, affectionately called ‘Aunt Joan.’”
The reaction to the School District’s release earlier this week of the controversial Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools has been mixed, with many local and state elected officials either willing to give the plan a chance, think only a few elements of the plan will work, or wish to scrap the plan altogether.
The blueprint, crafted by the district’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen and submitted to the School Reform Commission on Tuesday, calls for sweeping changes — chief among them a complete reorganization of district headquarters, the closure of 64 public schools, and austerity measures which require a multi-million dollar union give back.
The plan also calls for the establishment of a privatization component — called “Achievement Networks” — which will provide certain services to the schools left standing. Overall, if every element of the plan falls in place, district officials believe these measures will lead to a balanced budget at the conclusion of the five-year plan.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown, co-chair of the education committee and herself once an elementary school teacher, praised the SRC for turning its full attention to the matter, and urged patience as the details of the plan are worked out.
“The School Reform Commission released a bold plan that would dramatically alter what education looks like and feels like to young people in our city. Whether this paradigm shift is the appropriate course of action remains to be seen, but as leaders, it deserves our full attention and respect—we cannot be dismissive about this new budget reality facing the School District of Philadelphia,” Reynolds Brown said. “The devil is always in the details. That notion will absolutely apply as we analyze the data and hear from school district officials as well as those who would be impacted. What does this do to class sizes? How do we make sure our students are not treated like numbers? Will the leadership of localized ‘Achievement Networks’ look like Philadelphia when it comes to diversity? These are the preliminary questions I will be asking.”
Knudsen and SRC chairman Pedro Ramos have repeatedly stated that the organization itself, and businesses participating in the Achievement Networks program will face tight scrutiny, and can be replaced if their products and outcomes are unsatisfactory.
“We need fundamental change and focus on the children and their needs,” Knudsen said the day the blueprint was released. We are righting the ship financially, and finally addressing the change we need to make. But it’s also about a process that is not simple.”
Complicating the process is the blueprint’s plan to shave $156 million from personnel, in the form of a restructured wage scale and benefit program.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who says the union membership already did its share of sacrificing when the district asked for several cuts over recent years, released a scathing statement, accusing the district of gross mismanagement.
“This restructuring plan has nothing to do with raising student achievement,” Jordan’s statement said. “The district provided a business model, not a research-based plan for turning around or supporting schools. By closing 64 schools, and transferring more and more children out of publicly accountable, neighborhood schools and into charter, cyber-charter and private schools, the School District of Philadelphia is saying it no longer wants to be in the business of educating children. It would rather manage a ‘portfolio’ than do the hard work my members do every day educating children. This is a cynical, right-wing and market-driven plan to privatize public education, to force thousands of economically disadvantaged families to select from an under-funded hodge-podge of EMO- and charter-company-run schools, and to convert thousands of professional and family-sustaining positions into low-paying, high-turnover jobs.”
The blueprint also calls for $122 million in cuts to the district’s overall operations, and a $149 million reduction in public charter school funding; that reduction would equal a 7 percent loss in per-pupil funding.
Knudsen cited New York City’s public school reformation as an example of school reform that works, but education expert Diane Ravitch said that “New York City has not had any great success.” Ravitch, in town earlier this week for the conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook that “New York used to boast of dramatic test score gains, but they disappeared in 2010.”
“They’ve gone through four reorganizations,” Ravitch said. “New York has changed so much I don’t know what version Philadelphia is talking about.”
Ravitch, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under several administrations, called plans for privatilization an “abdication of public responsibility.”
“I didn’t see anything that would cause learning to improve, just a lot of rhetoric that schools would achieve more than they used to because we say so,” Ravitch said. “If you really want to improve schools, you have to do something about teaching and learning. This is just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The blueprint as presented also raises other concerns. Knudsen said that even if the SRC adopts the plan, the district — or whatever remains in its place — wouldn’t actualize any savings until fiscal year 2013; and most of the plan hinges on the $90 million-plus the district is slated to get through the equally controversial Actual Value Initiative – or AVI. These are revenues from an adjusted real estate tax plan. However, AVI is now bogged down in council, and it’s hard to say if or when the school district will receive those funds – or if will be in the $90 million range school officials hope for.
City Council President Darrell Clarke had general praise for the SRC taking this important step, but was careful to note the limits of council’s power in overseeing the district’s spending.
“Some aspects of it make some sense, some are of some concern, but the reality is that things have to change - and they have to change dramatically,” Clarke said. “You have to deal with teachers, and you have to deal with structures.”
Emphasizing that he expected the plan to change, Clarke said he supported its basic premise, and the fact that it laid out a long term plan for the district.
Clarke lauded school commissioners for being open to suggestion from council.
Council is in the process of analyzing Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget, going over it line by line, which includes the assumption that the school district will receive about $94 million more in property tax revenues this year as the city moves toward a property tax system based on full market valuation.
With council expected to give an increased allocation to the district, Clarke expects members to exert more influence on how that money is spent.
That has not always happened in the past. 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.
“With this new $90 million request, there is going to be something in there that reflects our viewpoint. That’s just the bottom line,” Clarke said, adding that with new, more cooperative commissioners, he expected the SRC to include some of council’s suggestions.
“They’ve listened to our concerns and listened to our suggestions to this point,” he said.
Ultimately, spending decisions must be made by the SRC.
“Our role is limited,” Clarke said. “We’re simply viewed as the person who is supposed to say ‘aye’ when it comes to the school district budget. That’s essentially what we’ve been.”
While city council debates the merits of the blueprint, State Representative Dwight Evans can do little more than shake his head at this current mess. Evans urged for school reform almost two decades ago, when he submitted both the “School Reform and Accountability Proposal” and drafted a school reform bill for the House in 1997. The blueprint Knudsen submitted bears striking resemblance to many of the suggestions Evans either made through his proposal, or through the Neighborhood School Network intuitive.
“They have a lot of moving parts…there’s some things the state has to do and some things they have to do locally, and there are some things I am not for. For example, anything that would squeeze the aspect of choice around parents and kids, I would not be for,” said Evans, a longtime supporter of the charter school movement. “It flies in the face of being a child-centered system. Because how can you say, on one hand, these students get choice; but on the other hand, stifle choice for everybody else?
“Those are just two of the criticisms I would have,” Evans continued, noting that he agrees it was time for the district to act, but will fight any cuts to charter school funding. “If this is supposed to be about children and parents and not about a dysfunctional system, then in my view, anything these people try to do on the backs of charters is counter-productive. When you look at the numbers, they are basically trying to use charters to balance their budget.”
Staff Writer Eric Mayes contributed to this report.
Decrying a proposed citywide curfew as a modern-day incarnation of Jim Crow, fugitive slave laws and apartheid, opponents of the plan may have stalled it in City Council this week.
“It’s never a done deal until the vote is called,” said the bill’s primary sponsor, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who introduced it on Mayor Michael Nutter’s behalf. “We’re going to circle back, which is what you always do with a highly controversial bill, and secure the nine-plus votes that we need. Should I hear from Council colleagues that we need a re-look — we’re always open to making it a better bill.”
The bill categorizes teenagers into three groups and imposes a different curfew for each: those 13 or younger would need to be indoors by 8 p.m.; 14- and 15-year-olds have to be in by 9 p.m. and 16- and 17-year-olds would be required to be inside by 10 p.m., seven days a week during the school year. During the summer it would be extended by one hour for each category.
In addition, the proposal creates fines for parents whose children are caught violating curfew. Fines would range from $75 for a first offense to a maximum of $500. Parents would have 30 days to pay.
Brown admitted that a week was a long time in politics, and things could change before Council’s next meeting, when the issue is expected to come up for a vote.
“If [the opposition] gets to nine then of course I would never move the bill,” she said. “You never move the bill unless you have nine.”
The mayor’s spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the administration stands behind the plan and is urging its passage.
“The administration certainly hopes that council will see the wisdom of it,” he said.
Had the vote been held Thursday, Brown said, it would have passed, noting that she had nine votes. The bill failed to come to a vote this week because it had not been properly advertised. Brown declined to say who was standing behind the bill.
She spoke to reporters after eight speakers rose during council meeting to oppose the curfew. Most were African Americans, some affiliated with the Occupy Philadelphia movement camped out in Dilworth Plaza, who compared the measure to past oppression and urged council to reject the plan.
Among them was independent mayoral candidate Walli Diop Rahman, who blasted the proposal, which he said would hit Black youth the hardest.
“African youth in this city are being made scapegoats through this policy and essentially being blamed for an economic, social and political crisis that actually has been caused by this city’s administration and ruling elite,” Rahman said. “If the city were really interested in stopping violence and crime then it would first and foremost address the violence and violent policy coming straight from its own administration. I’m talking about the violence of the budget cuts, about schools, the violence of poverty, the violence of the public policy of police containment.”
He urged council to think carefully before they voted.
“As you consider this so-called solution, your first step should not be to create a curfew — which is not unlike Jim Crow in the South or apartheid in South Africa,” Rahman said.
He was not the only one to compare the plan to oppressive policies of the past.
“This bill doesn’t make sense,” said P.J. Ghose, a professor and social worker from the University of Pennsylvania. “It did not work in Detroit. It did not work in Compton. It did not work in Boston. It did not work in New York City. Do not create a law that creates a class of people and puts them under house arrest. Let’s make sure that we do not impose this type of racist, sexist policy on our city any more.”
If curfews worked, he said, they would be imposed on the “marauding” drunks coming out of Eagles and Phillies games and attending parties at the city’s universities.
“We know for a fact they destroy property and businesses way more than the kind of flash mobs that are being held out to be indicted by this bill,” he said. “This bill does not apply to the kids and teens living in Chestnut Hill. It does not apply to kids living in suburbia.”
Brown conceded that many of the opponents concerns were legitimate.
“For sure, it’s a law where the lines are fragile,” she admitted, adding that she had assurances from the administration that the law would be enforced uniformly across the city.
“It’s going to be universally applied,” Brown said. “It is not just in West Philadelphia or just University City … even in Chestnut Hill and West Mount Airy.”
McDonald echoed Brown, assuring opponents that it would applied evenly.
“It will be enforced uniformly throughout the city,” he said.
Brown noted the law would expire in two years and give city officials the chance to gauge whether it had worked.
“There are mixed reviews about whether or not research supports the value of curfews,” she said. “That’s why we put in place a two-year provision. In two years the law will sunset. That will allow the administration time to capture the data and council members can have a chance to re-look at it and determine whether or not we want to continue.”
The bill is an important step toward changing behavior, McDonald said.
“We are going to be enforcing it, we are and we are going to continue,” he said. “We need to gradually, over time, change behaviors and expectations.”