Audits Involving City Schools Make for Good Political Theater

by Christopher Paslay

How many audits does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?  Or in the case of the Philadelphia School District, the center of a political and financial train wreck?  It seems the number just keeps getting bigger. 

Conducting audits on school district officials, and those associated with the district, is quite the new fad for local politicians (I think it is actually trending on Twitter as I write this).  It’s not hard to understand the recent appeal of conducting an audit, especially when you say the word “audit” out loud:  Audit

You have to admit, it sounds so powerful.  So intimidating

The word “audit” can be used two ways, as a verb and as a noun.  Here’s a verb form: The climate was right for the state senator to score some political points with voters, so he decided to “audit” the school district.  Here’s a noun form:  The mayor owed a favor to the school district official, so he used his clout to call off the “audit”.    

Sometimes I wonder how Don Corleone in “The Godfather” would have used the word audit.  I picture him saying something like this: (talking to Sonny):  Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.  Not unless you want to get audited.       

Here’s how I picture Don Corleone talking to Bonasera: Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.  I will ask you to make an audit disappear.                

This is how Johnny Depp’s character would use audit in the film “Donny Brasco”:  You think you’re gonna run an audit on me?  Forgetaboutit!   

Imagine if Samuel Taylor Coleridge rewrote his classic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” around our local politicians’ obsession with conducting audits that seem to go absolutely nowhere:  Audits, audits, everywhere, nor any drop to drink . . .

The recent audit mania that has befallen our city’s public schools is quite curious.  It’s not that the district doesn’t deserve to be investigated; it’s just that these recent audits and “investigations” have thus far amounted to nothing more than political theater.      

Take the much publicized IRS audit of the district’s finances last spring for example.  In May, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the IRS was investigating the district and had “28 specific areas of inquiry” and sought “information on reimbursements for travel and meals, the use of district automobiles and credit cards, and ‘checking account data for payments that are processed outside the district’s general fund.’” 

Four months later, what has the IRS audit has amounted to? 

Diddly squat.

In April, when conflict of interest allegations between School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and State Rep. Dwight Evans grew too intense (when Archie had a closed-door meeting with Evans which resulted in Foundations Inc. being offered a contract to take over the failing MLK High School), Mayor Nutter ordered a probe into the situation.  He directed Joan Markman, the city’s chief integrity officer, to conduct an investigation to see if there was any hanky-panky going on.  What has this amounted to so far? 

Nada.   

The best is when school district officials conduct audits on themselves.  Last year, it was reported that the Philadelphia School District abruptly and without reason took a lucrative security contract away from Security and Data Technologies Inc., a Caucasian-owned firm, and gave it to IBS Communications, a minority-owned firm.  It was the second time the district improperly steered work to IBS.  The first time, it ended up paying 12 times the $1,000 estimate offered by a competing firm.  When Ackerman was accused by public officials of breaking the law over the security contracts, she spent over $173,000 of district money to conduct an “internal investigation.”  Guess what the conclusion was?

All clear in here.   

It would be nice if government leaders could finish one audit before starting another one.  Or before starting a dozen other ones.

Here are just a few of the more noteworthy audits/investigations local leaders have recently called for:

Pa. Auditor General Jack Wagner is currently investigating the identities of the anonymous donors who funneled $405,000 through the 501(c)3 charity Children First Fund to buy out Arlene Ackerman’s contract (a charity with an eight-member board that once included Ackerman, SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., and now-interim Superintendent Leroy Nunery II).           

City Councilman Bill Green has also requested that Jack Wagner investigate whether three members of Ackerman’s staff helped organize protest rallies in her favor while on the clock at work.

Then there’s the review being conducted by the Philadelphia School District’s legal office to see whether the critical comments Arlene Ackerman made about district officials violates her buy-out contract and will void her $905,000 severance package.   

Whether any of these audits/investigations amounts to anything remains to be seen. 

But one thing’s for certain: They sure do make for good political theater.

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Philadelphia’s Full-Day Kindergarten Hostage Crisis

by Christopher Paslay

Anyone familiar with early childhood education will tell you that years three through six in a child’s life are extremely important.  It’s during this time that a child’s brain is the most impressionable, especially when it comes to language formation and critical thinking skills.  In their groundbreaking book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley showed that a child’s cognitive development is greatly influenced by the type of interaction he or she has with parents and teachers.  The amount and kind of language children hear as youngsters are strongly correlated with their IQs later in life.

Outside of the instructional value of early childhood education, of course, there is the very practical issue of child care; many mothers and fathers work fulltime jobs and desperately need caregivers for their children.         

In light of the importance of early childhood school programs, why would the Philadelphia School District consider cutting full-day kindergarten in order to balance the budget?  If one were to speculate on the matter they might come up with the following conclusion: the District held full-day kindergarten hostage as a means to get more money from the city and state.    

As we know now, the state didn’t bite; PA Governor Tom Corbett stuck to his guns and held tight to his budget.  The city, as evidenced by Mayor Nutter’s recent tax increase proposals, is going through the motions of trying to raise $110 million—not even one-quarter of the $629 million needed to balance the District’s books for the coming school year.

But as it turns out, the District doesn’t need money from the city or the state to save full-day kindergarten after all.  On Friday, June 3, Superintendent Ackerman announced at an afternoon news conference, “I’ve heard the voices of the community, the voices of our dedicated parents.”

Miraculously, like the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the District stumbled upon federal Title I money (how did this get here?) and saved full-day kindergarten like Jesus Himself. 

“We are trying our best to use the funds in a strategic way,” Dr. Ackerman told the public.  The District’s “strategy,” curiously, was news to Mayor Nutter.  Apparently, his office was kept in the dark about the kindergarten deal, and they were not happy.

“It’s a big problem,” Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said Friday night after the news was announced.          

Nutter needn’t feel slighted.  No one, not Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz or even the IRS have a concrete understanding of the workings of the District’s finances; currently, both offices are conducting audits on the district’s books because of questionable accounting practices and “material weaknesses” found in their financial statements.          

For the record, here are some known facts about the District’s finances:

  • In the 2008-09 school year, the District had an operating budget of $2.75 billion and a student enrollment of 169,000.  They had full-day kindergarten; art, music, and athletic programs; and all employees had jobs.
  • In the 2009-10 school year, the budget grew to approximately $3 billion.  Enrollment went down to 165,000.
  • In the 2010-11 school year, the budget grew to $3.2 billion.  Enrollment dropped to 162,000.
  • In the coming 2011-12 school year, the projected budget is approximately $2.8 billion.  There is now a $629 million deficit.  Drastic cuts will be made.  Thousands of employees will lose their jobs.  Art, music, and athletic programs are all in jeopardy.      

Incredibly, the words “gross mismanagement” have yet to roll from the tongue of any government official outside of State Rep. Michael McGeehan, who has bravely called for Ackerman’s resignation in order to bring some financial credibility back to the Philadelphia School District.   

Of course, a lack of credibility hasn’t stopped the District from reopening contracts with school unions to ask for more concessions.  Nor has it dissuaded school leaders from holding kindergarteners and their parents hostage for financial reasons.

The full-day kindergarten hostage crisis might be over in Philadelphia, but the fact that the District would use early childhood education as leverage to squeeze more money from tax payers speaks volumes about the District’s principles and its leadership.