Public must scrutinize district spending



by Susan Cohen Smith


It has been said that, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As news of the School District of Philadelphia’s new leadership team and windfall budget sinks in, it would be prudent to recall lessons learned from the past.


When the School Reform Commission was formed in 2001, the system was in financial as well as academic distress. With the appointment of Paul Vallas as CEO came an influx of new money for educational reforms. The workforce tentatively acknowledged Vallas’ ideas and new leadership.


Some of us were slow to jump on board, and reluctant to accept the alien presence of Vallas’ Chicago imports whom we sometimes referred to as the “Square-Toes” for their preference in footwear.  When in the presence of downtown administrative types, many of us instinctively gazed down at their shoes to determine if they were the new guys from Chicago.


One such administrator was charged with heading up the new Secondary Education Movement.  Student Governments fell within his bailiwick. The SRC’s first act with regard to Student Government had been to do away with the longstanding, largely ceremonial tradition of including student representatives on the School Board. These positions had come with the honor of having the students’ names lettered on office doors at the 21st Street headquarters, which the SRC also did away with, but that’s another blog.


To make up for this slight, the new head of Secondary Education promised an enthusiastic gathering of Student Government sponsors a whopping $1000 annual budget plus a host of other unprecedented activities and opportunities for students. The goal was to prepare the student leaders of each secondary school for the world after high school and to encourage kids to get involved with the often-thankless tasks surrounding student government.


While some of these promises and programs were eventually enacted, their implementation was inconsistent and short-lived.


One interesting innovation introduced by this Chicago transplant was a program called Senior Residency, whereby outstanding 12th grade students were identified and recruited for service to their schools. For satisfactory performance of their assigned duties, the Senior Residents were paid a stipend of $100 a month and received academic credit as well. We were warned never to say double-dipping.


The following directive went out to the high schools:


“Seniors will be required to wear a specially designed uniform while serving as a Senior Residency participant. The uniform will consist of a Secondary Education Movement logo polo shirt and the approved bottoms of their respective school.”


At sponsors’ meetings, we questioned the value of this expenditure, as the shirts would be worn only for a few months by kids who were graduating and would never again wear them. We were told that the administrator ordered them and that was that.


The high-quality polo shirts, along with heavy cotton button-down long-sleeved shirts, each with embroidered logo, all in size XL, arrived the first week in June! The seniors who were still around refused to wear either shirt in the sweltering buildings. One of the Residents refashioned her oversized polo shirt into a mini dress.


This same Chicago Square-Toe also spent enormous amounts of newfound money on elaborate High School Fairs, referred to by many as his “dog and pony shows”.


To no one’s surprise, he left the School District of Philadelphia after three years on the job, just before the $180 million surprise deficit surfaced in 2006 to become Superintendent of another urban school district in the Midwest. It became clear that his lavish spending practices were nothing more than portfolio enhancements to enrich his job search.


Right now, with a fresh look to the School Reform Commission and new money in the coffers, there must be unrelenting public vigilance and outcry the moment these new faces appear to head in the same direction as their predecessors. Indefensible spending based on dubious and untested practices must be vigorously held to critical examination and intense scrutiny lest we find ourselves in the same mess as in 2006.


Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at


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