Monthly Archives: May 2012

Keystone Exam to Replace PSSA in 2013

by Christopher Paslay

Although the PSSA will remain in elementary and middle schools, the Keystone Exam will replace the PSSA in high schools across the state of Pennsylvania starting in the spring of 2013.  

Updated 7/31/12:

Memo From:  THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA Office of Accountability:

The Pennsylvania Department of Education provided clarification yesterday (July 12, 2012) regarding the Keystone Exams.  The following memo outlines key details about the requirements for participation in these assessments and manner in which student performance on the Keystone Exams will impact determinations about Adequate Yearly Progress.  In addition, we will offer some curricular strategies to assist you and your team in planning support programs to assist 11th grade students in preparing for success on the Algebra I, Literature and Biology Keystone Exams.

Assessment of 11th Grade Students

  • ALL 11th graders will take the Keystone assessments in the following 3 subjects next year:  Algebra 1, Literature, and Biology.
  • The Algebra 1 and Literature scores will be used in the calculation of AYP for the high school.
  • Biology will NOT be used in the AYP calculation. However, the 11th graders are still required to take the Biology Keystone Exam to meet the participation requirement in NCLB that all students complete a science assessment during their high school years.

 Assessment of 9th and 10th Grade Students

  • All students in grades 9 and 10, enrolled in the Algebra 1, Literature (generally, English 2), or Biology courses are required to take the Keystone Exam in these subjects upon completion of the course(s).
  • If a student scores proficient or better in any subject, his/her score/s will be banked and count towards AYP calculations when he/she is in the 11th grade and he/she need not take the examination again in this/these subject(s).
  • If a student does not score proficient, he/she has multiple opportunities to re-take the examination(s). However, his/her Algebra 1 and Literature scores will not count for AYP calculations until the student is in the 11th grade.
  • If a student took the Keystones in Algebra 1 and/or Literature Exam(s) multiple times between grades 9-11, and never scored proficient or better, his/her best score will count towards the AYP calculation when he/she is in the 11th grade.

 Assessment of Students Graduating in 2017 and Beyond (8th graders in 2013)

  • Students MUST score proficient or better in all the three subjects (Algebra1, Literature, and Biology.) in order to graduate from high school.
  • They can do so in multiple attempts.
  • This is a state requirement.
  • After 2 unsuccessful attempts students will have the option of completing a project.

The parameters for this project have not been finalized yet.

Below is a previous post from May 19, 2012 (this information is no longer accurate and has been updated above):

Now that students across the state are starting to master the PSSA test (last school year, 77% of all children in grades K – 12 scored proficient or above in math and 73.5% scored proficient or above in reading), the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is doing what all political bodies do when they want to stay in control and keep one step ahead of the people: they are changing the test.

Starting in 2012 – 13, high school students will no longer be taking the PSSA.  The Keystone Exams, which will consist of tests covering Algebra I, Biology, and Literature, will be given instead.  Although no testing schedule has been finalized, it’s probable that the Philadelphia School District, as well as most districts in the state, will give the Algebra I exam in the spring of freshmen year and the Biology exam in the spring of sophomore year.  Per the state’s “recommendation,” Philadelphia will most likely give the Literature test during sophomore year as well.

This is a significant change from the way the PSSAs were administered at the high school level in the past.  Under the PSSA, math, reading, writing, and science tests were given to all students in their 11th grade year (although only math and reading counted for AYP under the federal No Child Left Behind Law).  Now, because Algebra I is routinely taken in 9th grade and Biology in 10th, the Keystone Exams will likely be given during those years. 

What doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, however, is giving the Literature test in 10th grade instead of 11th.  Although the PDE is only “recommending” that the Literature portion be given at the end of sophomore year, it appears as though Philadelphia School District officials are going to heed this advice.

Although I’ve continued to inquire as to why the state is “recommending” giving the Literature portion in 10th, I’ve been unable to find an adequate answer; none of the administrators I’ve spoken with have been able to get an answer from the state, either.  Unless the PDE is able to offer a meaningful rationale, the Philadelphia School District should seriously consider giving the exam in 11th grade.

Here are three reasons why:

1.  The Literature Exam is based on skills, not content.  In other words, the test isn’t limited to a specific period of literature covered, like World Literature (9th and 10th grade), American Lit (11th grade), or British Lit (12th grade).  Whether or not specific stories or novels (content) are covered doesn’t matter.  The assessment anchors and eligible content on the Keystone Literature Exam are skills based (analyze author’s purpose, make inferences and draw conclusions, identify figurative language, etc.), so the reasoning that applies to Algebra I and Biology doesn’t apply to Literature.  The test can be given in any of the first three years of high school, so why not give it in 11th grade when the students have had another year to learn the skills needed on the test?  

2.  The Literature Exam is vocabulary based.  Giving the exam in 11th grade will give students another year to broaden their vocabularies, and to learn and practice new words.   

3.  Giving the Literature Exam in 11th grade will stagger the exams.  Why not have students take one exam per year from 9th to 11th, rather than taking both the Biology and Literature test in 10th grade?  Staggering the tests will help teachers and schools focus more on curriculum rather than killing instruction for students by forcing 10th graders to double-up on test preparation for two subjects at once.

Perhaps the most concerning part of the Keystone Exam is the new state graduation requirement.  According to the talk coming from the PDE, starting in the year 2017, all public high school students in the state will have to pass all parts of the Keystone Exam in order to graduate.  This would include students with special needs, those who are truant and miss large blocks of instruction, impoverished students with limited home support, and those with other social and emotional ills.  What will happen to the students who fail to pass all portions of the Keystone Exam and as a result fail to graduate?  If they are retained, who is going to pay for the extra seats, materials, and resources?  The city of Philadelphia, with $472 million in delinquent property taxes?  Or the state, which has slashed Philadelphia’s education budget like some Samurai Warrior?    

As with No Child Left Behind, which promised that all children would score proficient or better on state tests in reading and math by 2014, the 2017 Keystone Exam graduation requirement is quite ambitious.  Mostly likely we will see waivers being granted to students and schools starting in 2017 (similar to what is happening now with NCLB), when a backlog of students across the state struggle to meet these . . . unrealistic? . . . standards.        

Of course, it is of the utmost importance to set high expectation for all children, which is why Philadelphia School District officials should seriously consider giving the Keystone Literature Exam in the 11th grade, or at least demand a meaningful explanation from the PDE as to why they are “recommending” it be given in sophomore year.

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The end of public education in Philadelphia

If the School Reform Commission and Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen have their way, we may witness the end of public education in Philadelphia. A five-year plan proposed by Philadelphia School District officials calls for the overhaul of virtually every element of the system — from finances to academics to central management. These drastic changes suggest to many that the district is intent on expediting the privatization of its schools, despite its promises to stay the traditional route and invest in neighborhoods and communities. . . .

This is an excerpt from Lisa Haver’s commentary in today’s Philadelphia Daily News, “The end of public education in Philadelphia.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  It is an adaption of the piece she wrote for Chalk and Talk on April 25th headlined, “Is the End of Public Education in Philadelphia Near?”  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for Reading.

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A Day in the Life of a First Year Philadelphia Teacher

by Christopher Paslay

from Chapter 7 of The Village Proposal

The one thing I remember experiencing my first year on the job was exhaustion.  Teaching was tough.  To do it right, it demanded an incredible amount of your time.  To do it right it had to become a lifestyle, a part of your very existence.

My typical day in 1997 was loaded.  I’d get up at 5:30 am, shower, dress, eat, and walk out the door by 6:45 am.  Most of my neighbor’s cars were still in their driveways at this hour.  Many of the people on the road were blue collar guys—construction workers who drove trucks and carried thermoses and big lunch boxes.  To me, there was always a side to teaching that was blue collar.

I’d arrive at school by 7:15 and sign-in at the main office.  I’d grab my roll book for my homeroom, check my mailbox for messages and other paperwork, and head to my classroom.  If I had parents to call that day I’d do this in the teacher’s room on the only phone, hoping to catch a kid’s mother before she went to work (this was before cell phones).  At least one of the numbers I’d call would be disconnected and no longer in service.  At least one of the numbers would be from a parent who didn’t have the same last name as their child.  I learned early on that if the student’s name was, say, Mary Smith, you couldn’t just call the child’s house and ask for Mr. or Mrs. Smith; the odds were Mr. Smith didn’t live there anymore and that Mrs. Smith was back to using her maiden name or the name of her new husband.  Even more tragic, some of the students didn’t even live with either of their parents, but with a grandparent or some other foster care giver.  The routine for calling a kid’s house was to ask for the parent or guardian of the child: Hello, may I speak to the parent or guardian of Mary Smith please?

When I did get a parent on the line I’d identify myself as Mr. Paslay, their child’s English teacher, and go into the reason for the call.  Your child’s been cutting; or your child’s been misbehaving and distracting other students; or your child didn’t turn in their persuasive essay that was due last Friday.  Parents responded to my calls in a number of ways.  Some were concerned and insisted that they would open-up a can of whoop-ass on their child as soon as they got home.  Others sounded put-out, like their lives were complicated enough already without some teacher hounding them on the phone.  Once in a while I’d get a hold of a parent who had thrown in the towel completely, admitting to me that they simply didn’t know what to do with their son or daughter, that if I had any ideas, they were willing to listen.

After the phone calls I’d go through my mail.  Any forms to complete, progress reports or documents from the counselor, I’d put in the top drawer of my desk to complete when I had more time.  I did the same with memos and other paper work reminding me about scheduled meetings.  Then I’d set up my room for first period.  This involved putting notes up on the board, getting any video, audio or computer equipment organized, and making sure all materials and supplies were in order.  Were there enough copies of the book or magazine I was using that day?  Were there enough newspapers and graphic organizers?

Before computerized grading, I had to set up my attendance and grade book for the day, recording the date, getting out seating charts if needed.  Then I waited, ready for the students to arrive.  It was important to be ready for their arrival, to have all things in place.  If I was a step behind, if I was putting up notes on the board at the last minute or running around to get extra copies, I played catch-up the whole period.  It was like the gun sounding and being stuck at the starting line, watching the race take-off without me; it knocked me that much off my game.

When the bell rang I stepped out into the hallway to greet the students at the door as they entered my room.  I also pitched in to keep my end of the hallway clear, to keep the traffic moving.  There was always a lot of congestion in the halls first thing in the morning.  Kids coming in late, congregating with friends, lollygagging and taking the long way everywhere.  I’d shoo some students off to class only to see them circle back around a moment later.  The hall monitor at the time, a short, 60-something woman named Florence, would holler and shout and tell the kids to move on, to take off their hats, but it usually took a good 10 minutes for the halls to calm down.

“Shut up Florence!” the students would say, mocking the way she talked.  Then they’d crack-up laughing and wander off.  Some mornings I’d get in the fray, demanding they comply with the rules, but most times this only insured that I’d start the morning off on the wrong foot, completely frustrated over a student who either ignored my directions or copped an attitude.

At the late bell I’d come back into my classroom and shut the door.  At this point at least one student would ask if they could go to the bathroom or to their locker or go get a drink of water real fast before class got started.  I’d tell them no, sorry, not right now.  We had things to do and they needed to get started on them.  I had freshman first period so this meant reminding them to sit down in their seats and relax.  Sit down and get started on the journal entry which was written on the green board in the front of the room.

They’d settle and take out their journals.  They’d complete the entry, reflecting on the topic and writing out their thoughts in at least one paragraph.  A paragraph was a minimum of five sentences, I’d tell them.  Journals were collected once a week and counted as 10 percent of their report card grade.  I circled the room and reminded them of the importance of the journals. I also tried to stimulate their thinking by pushing them to answer the question from different angles.  Some students responded positively to this stimulation, others didn’t want to be bothered and put their heads down.  I’d ask them nicely to pick their head up and if they didn’t cooperate or put it back down a minute later, I’d confront them and put their name on my “call list”.  Occasionally an argument broke out.  Once in a blue moon, this led to the student cursing at me at which point I pink slipped them and sent them to the discipline office.

Journal entries varied.  There were always a handful of kids who didn’t have a pen or bring their notebook.  In order to keep them on task, I’d lend them a piece of loose leaf and let them borrow a pen in exchange for allowing me to hold their student ID for collateral.  The same group of students forgot their pens and notebooks on a regular basis.  Lending them one just encouraged their bad habits.  I started charging a quarter for pens and paper, at which time these kids called me cheap and rebelled from completing journals altogether.  I called their parents with varying degrees of success.

After the journals were completed we discussed their responses.  Topics that were very interesting and stimulating—like abortion or legalizing marijuana—sometimes broke into heated arguments.  Despite my rules and specific instructions, five or six people spoke at once.

“Excuse me!” I’d shout.  “One person at a time.” I’d fight tooth and nail to get the class settled and refocused.  I’d call on another student to share his journal.  Thirty seconds later, the person speaking would get bombarded by an opposing opinion, then two, then 10.  The room would erupt like Jerry Springer, minus the fights.  I’d run out of energy and have to move to the next activity, even if there wasn’t significant closure.

The next activity piggy-backed off the journal topic which was geared toward the objectives for the day.  If we were doing a short story from their literature textbook, I’d transition into a “before” reading activity—the KWL was my staple the first year.  I’d have the students preview the title and look at the pictures in order to make predictions about what the story might be about.  Next, we’d preview vocabulary, briefly going through the meanings of the difficult words found in the text.

Late students would begin arriving at this time, some of them showing-up 30 minutes after the bell strictly because their parents failed to get them out of bed and out the door in time for school.  Despite my classroom rules they’d swagger into the room obnoxiously, in the middle of conversations with someone in the hall, laughing, sometimes cursing, cross the front of the room and go to their desk.  On the way they might stop and screw with one of their friends.

Once they sat down, they’d ask, “What are we doing?”  I’d explain the procedure for coming in late, that they needed to check the board for pre-class, for any journal entry they might need to complete.

“You got a pen I can borrow?” they would ask.

“No.  You need to be more organized.  Where’s your notebook?”

“I forgot it.”

“I’ll give you a pen and paper for 25 cents.  You can pay me tomorrow if you don’t have it.  I’ll write your name down.”

We’d begin reading the story.  I might start with the audio version or we’d read the first page together as a class.  Once the students were into the set-up of the plot, I’d have them read independently, using a QNT to deconstruct the text as they read.  A QNT was a strategy that stood for “Quotes, Notes and Thoughts”.  Much like a KWL, students took out a paper and folded it into threes and labeled it accordingly.  Under “Q” they recorded any quotes that struck them as interesting or important, under “N” they took any notes about any particular passage that they either enjoyed or had questions about, and under “T” they recorded thoughts and reflections about certain passages.  It was designed to get them engaged with the reading.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work so well.  Getting students engaged with reading was perhaps the most challenging thing about being an English teacher.  In the beginning, especially dealing with freshman, if we didn’t read the story out loud as a class or listen to it on audio, the students tuned out.  Many didn’t have the self control or focus to read long passages on their own.  They lasted no more than a few minutes and then started talking.  I constantly had to circulate the room and raise my voice to get them back on task.  This was before I learned about “chunking,” and other kinds of literacy strategies.  I was a rookie teacher and didn’t know the tricks of the trade.  I had limited supporting materials and many of the things I did, many of my activities and methods of instruction, were worked out through trial and error.

By the end of the period, which at the time was 57 minutes long, we usually would have gone through at least three activities: a pre-class warm up to introduce the topic for the day; a reading piece that was not always guided with a directed reading strategy; and a writing piece that was not always centered around the proper objectives and didn’t build in that day’s vocabulary.  Often times I struggled with classroom management so my activities were based not on the best methods of instruction or learning objectives but on what would keep the students the quietest.  And I rarely gave homework.  At the time, homework was incredibly hard to keep up with.

After first period my gas tank was already half empty.  If there were a confrontation or spat with a student my energy would be totally spent.  But there was no time for self pity, because as the bell rang and one class left another took its place.

Second period was the same as the first—30 energetic freshman.  I’d go out into the hall to greet them as they entered the room.  There would be arguments over taking off hats and clearing the corridor.  There would be lateness, kids coming in five or ten minutes after the bell with cans of soda they illegally purchased from the vending machines in the lunch room.  There would be more students without pens or notebooks, students who just wanted to screw off or put their heads down on the desk and sleep.  And there would be complaining.  Complaining over the journal entry; complaining over the story or article we had to read; complaining over the stupid writing assignment we had to do.

When second period left third period came in.  Same drill.  Thirty freshmen acting like freshman.  Arguing, complaining, challenging my authority.  On bad days I’d be running on fumes.  I was physically drained, and sometimes it was quite a struggle just to get everyone’s attention to begin the lesson.  The kids would be in their seats with their journals out but still brimming with energy, poking each other, play fighting, horsing around like they were out on the playground.  I’d stand at the front of the room, waiting for just the right moment to get started.  The feeling was a mixture of anxiety and apprehension, like looking at a 200 pound television that you know you have to carry up five flights of steps.  When I thought the time was right I’d jump in and get started.

“Okay,” I’d begin, “it’s time to get started.  I need everyone’s attention now guys.  Seriously.  Does anyone want to share their journal entry today?”

Nine out of ten times the room didn’t settle.  Just asking for their attention usually didn’t cut it.  The freshmen were in their own little worlds and conversation continued.

“Okay guys,” I’d say, and start naming the names of the individuals who were still not listening.  “Joe, I need your attention.  Denise, Shakira, please.  Let’s stop the talking now . . .”

Sometimes Joe, or Denise, or Shakira would get mad and say, “What?!  What do you want?!”

“Stop talking please.”

“Man, I’m not the only one.”

My patience would slip.  So would my temper.  I knew it was time to stop being nice; it was time to start lifting the 200 pound television up the five flights of steps.  There are theories in textbooks that state teachers don’t have to expend this kind of energy to get students’ attention, that if they have established routines in the beginning of the year—such as flicking the lights on or off or holding up their index finger to signal silence—then students will comply practically effort free.  But from my experience that first year, this was a lot of bologna.  I’d flicked the lights on and off several times in September, only to have the freshman go, Ooo!  Haunted house!

Frustration mounting, I’d raise my voice.   “Excuse me!” I’d shout finally.  “I need everyone quiet and facing forward, now!”  Things would begin to settle, although there were always a few pockets of students who refused to allow my lesson to interrupt their personal conversations.  Then I would begin teaching.

Advisory, otherwise known as homeroom, would begin right after 3rd period ended.  Thirty more freshmen would flood my classroom, talking, goofing off, sometimes wrestling.  My goal during advisory wasn’t to keep them quiet but just to keep them in their seats.  I’d sit at my desk and take attendance.  In the beginning of the year I’d ask students who were absent the day before if they had a note, but after a week of doing so, it became clear that bringing in a signed slip of paper from mom or dad was clearly the exception rather than the rule; to my shock, less than 10 percent of the students in my advisory ever had a note excusing their absence.

What’s with these kids’ parents? I would think to myself, remembering how concerned my own mother and father were with my education.  Clearly, many of these children lacked the proper guidance.  School was not a top priority at home, and the absence of their parents’ involvement was having a negative effect on their overall study habits and learning.

Halfway through the 20 minute advisory period the PA announcements would come on.

“Shhhh!” I’d tell them.  “Let’s listen.  This is important.”

Not many people listened or cared.

After advisory was my 45 minute lunch period.  I’d eat my sandwich, take the roll book back down to the main office, and get ready for the last two classes of the day.  I’d straighten my room (pick up the crumpled paper, candy wrappers, and the occasional empty soda can) and replenish supplies.  With time left over I’d grade papers or think about preparing activities for the next day.

The bell would ring.  Another 30 freshman—my fourth class of the day—would come through the door.  Like me, most had just finished their lunch.  Most days this group had two gears: One—bouncing off the walls; and two—sleeping.  There was no in between.  Because of the sugar rush from lunch, they had even more energy than the group before them.  Getting their attention at the beginning of class was the equivalent of carrying a 300 pound television up to the attic, if you can believe that.  Fortunately, I’d have a second wind from eating as well, so I’d usually be able to pull off the task of getting them quiet and writing in their journals.  But often times, forcing them to shut down and concentrate had an interesting effect on their bodies: it sent them into second gear—sleep mode.

If they couldn’t bounce around and talk and burn off the sugar with no holds barred, many times they shut down.  Bang.  Out like a light.  Snoring and drooling on the desk.  I was absolutely stunned and amazed at how little ability they had to control themselves, to put up with just a minimal amount of discomfort.  I was also amazed at how many parents of these children seemed to suffer from the same issues.

On days that I was struggling to get through the period, I’d cave-in and let 25 percent of the class sleep.  I welcomed the peace and quiet.  I was presenting the lesson to whoever wanted to get an education.  If they opted out, so be it.  It was their choice.

Next period was my 57 minute prep.  If I could muster the energy I’d get started on making copies for the next day.  I might call a parent if there were an incident earlier in the day, or continue grading papers.  Many times I just veged-out at my desk and tried to keep my sanity.  I was fried and often times did a lot of staring out into space.

The last period of the day were sophomores.  This group of 29 students was a little more mature than my first four classes of 9th graders.  They actually entered my room like regular human beings.  This had a lot to do with the fact that 15 to 20 percent of them cut the class everyday; it was the last period and many wanted to go home early.  At first I spent an incredible amount of time chasing down cuts—checking attendance in advisory roll books and speaking with other teachers (back then there was no computerized attendance system)—but after a few months I didn’t have the time or energy to waste on kids who didn’t want to be in school.

Because the school didn’t have any 10th grade literature textbooks, I photocopied a lot of material out of my college Intro to Literature anthology to use with the sophomores.  I also adapted the writing assignments I used with the 9th graders to use with the 10th.  By this point in the day I was burnt.  Cashed.  Out of steam.  So were the students.  Because of my lack of experience and the lack of materials, my lessons were often thin and didn’t last the full 57 minute period.  Often times by 2:30, fifteen minutes before the bell, there’d be nothing to do.  Students would talk and congregate in clusters in the room.  I’d yell and tell them to get back in their seats, but this was a struggle.  They were bored and ready to go home.  Five full minutes before the bell they’d line up at the door, waiting.  Sometimes they’d push through the doorway and spill out into the hallway.

“Wait for the bell,” I’d tell them, and have to stand in the doorway to keep them from sneaking off.  Every so often I’d get tired of the routine and make a new rule: no one could leave at the bell unless everybody was seated.  It worked for about a week but I soon ran out of energy and lost the ability to enforce the rule.  At the bell, people left anyway.  I gave detentions and made calls but again got limited results.

When the bell finally rang to end the day, the feeling of relief was incredible.  The television was safely on the fifth floor of the apartment (some days, I’ll admit, I only got it to the third floor), and now I could put it down and catch my breath.

Of course, the end of class didn’t mean the end of my day.  There was still an incredible amount of work to be completed before it was quitting time.  Papers to grade.  Lessons to write.  Calls to make to parents to try to get them involved in their child’s education in any way I could.  Some days there were after school meetings with special education teachers to fill out Individualized Education Plans (IEP’S), or conferences with administrators to work on Comprehensive Support Assistant Programs (CSAP’s).  After it was all said and done, I’d leave school sometimes as late as 5:00pm.

When you did the math, I was working close to a 10 hour day.

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To Mayor Nutter: Close Delinquent Properties, Not Schools

by Christopher Paslay

Instead of cutting badly needed school personnel and resources, Mayor Nutter should crack down on the city’s deadbeats who owe $472 million in delinquent property taxes. 

Despite laying-off teachers, nurses, school police officers and teacher aids, freezing salaries, cutting athletics, and shutting down after-school activities, the Philadelphia School District continues to struggle financially. 

Thomas Knudsen, the School District’s Chief Recovery Officer (who makes $25,000 a month), recently announced that the District faces a $218 million deficit for the 2012-13 school year, and that if Mayor Nutter’s new property-tax proposal does not pass City Council, the District may not open in the fall.

“It is not clear that we could, in fact, open schools this fall,” Knudsen said.

Nutter’s new property tax proposal, nicknamed “Actual Value Initiative,” would serve to reassess properties across Philadelphia and adjust taxes to an “actual” or current rate.  In theory, this is supposed to bring in an additional $94 million to the School District. 

But Nutter’s property tax reassessment plan is only a drop in the bucket, and continues to put the burden on hard working middle class citizens.  His plan does little to go after deadbeats who refuse to pay their fair share of property taxes, and does not adequately address the problem of vacant buildings. 

In August of last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer did a series on Philadelphia’s delinquent-property-tax collection system titled, “The Delinquency Crisis.”  In a report headlined “Taxes wither on the vine,” the Inquirer wrote:

Philadelphia runs the least-effective delinquent-property-tax collection system of the nation’s biggest cities, a system that has created a “culture of nonpayment” and cost the city and cash-strapped School District $472 million in unpaid real estate taxes, penalties, and interest.

It is a delinquency epidemic that reaches from Chestnut Hill to Point Breeze, infecting every neighborhood. In all, there are nearly 111,000 delinquent properties, or about 19 percent of all parcels in Philadelphia, according to an Inquirer and PlanPhilly.com analysis of city data.

The past-due properties include such pricey parcels as the proposed Foxwoods casino site, an Old City art gallery, a South Philadelphia hotel, and choice real estate a block off Rittenhouse Square.

But it is in low-income neighborhoods where the delinquency crisis has peaked and where the city’s response has been the least effective. . . .

According to the Inquirer report, Philadelphia has more tax deadbeats per property than any other big city in the country.  Here are some facts highlighted in the report

  • The delinquent tax problem has grown under the Nutter administration.  In May 2009, there were just over 100,000 tax-delinquent properties in Philadelphia. On April 30, 2011, the count had risen to nearly 111,000.
  • Tens of thousands of parcels are never subjected to any enforcement action beyond sternly worded letters from the city Revenue Department.
  • The city’s typical tax delinquent is 6.5 years behind and owes $4,249 in taxes, penalties, and interest.
  • 26,000 properties are at least a decade behind, and the owners of nearly 8,500 properties haven’t paid a dime for 20 years or more.
  • According to city records, the largest delinquent, owing $6.1 million in principal, penalties, and interest on five unpaid years including 2011, is Roman Philadelphia Property L.L.C. at 1499 S. Columbus Blvd., site of the potential Foxwoods casino.
  • Cumulatively, the city’s delinquent properties are 720,000 years behind in taxes.

Of the delinquent properties, Frank S. Alexander, a law professor at Emory University and a leading national authority on improving property-tax collection systems, told the Inquirer:  “That’s an astronomical level of delinquency. It is phenomenally high.  Those numbers tell you there is a very high rate of nonenforcement. It means that the city has made a decision not to go after these properties.”

Mayor Nutter may not be going after these tax deadbeats, but he is going after schools.  Nutter and Knudsen have targeted teachers, nurses, custodians, school police officers, noontime aids, cafeteria staff, athletic coaches, after-school activity sponsors, art programs, music programs, and unions, among others, in an effort to balance the School District’s budget, all of which will have a negative impact on learning. 

Not surprisingly, Nutter and Knudsen are now implementing scare tactics—à la Arleen Ackerman and the Great Full-Day Kindergarten Crisis—suggesting that schools may not be able to open in the fall.  Not unless, ahem, the School District’s five unions cough-up $156 million in givebacks, and Philadelphia’s hard working citizens (who actually pay their taxes) submit to another property tax increase.

It’s time for Mayor Nutter to get his priorities straight and make an honest effort to recover the $472 million owed to the city.  He must take the high road and finally confront the city’s tax cheats instead of balancing the School District budget on the backs of hard working citizens and their children.

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Filed under After School Programs, School Budget