Tag Archives: Mayor Nutter

Are Philly Schools Headed the Way of Detroit?

detroit

by Christopher Paslay

It’s going to take more than a “fair state-funding formula” to save Philly schools.  

Tonight at 6:00 pm at the Licacouras Center, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will learn important updates on the current contract negotiations with the Philadelphia School District and decide what steps to take next.  PFT President Jerry Jordan has already proposed having teachers pay more for their health benefits, in addition to taking a pay freeze for one year.  The School District, however, wants more.  The School Reform Commission is asking for teachers to take pay cuts up to 13% percent for five years, among other things.

The Obama administration provided $45 million in debt forgiveness to Pennsylvania, and both sides are counting on Governor Corbett, who is holding the money hostage as a way to get the PFT to agree to pay cuts, to eventually release the cash to the School District.

The PFT may agree to pay cuts, or they may not.  Corbett may give the $45 million to Philly schools, or he may not.  In the long run, none of this will keep the Philadelphia School District from collapsing under it’s own weight; tragically, it appears that the PSD is heading the way of Detroit.

Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes:

If there’s an iron rule in economics, it is Stein’s Law (named after Herb, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers): “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Detroit, for example, no longer can go on borrowing, spending, raising taxes and dangerously cutting such essential services as street lighting and police protection. So it stops. It goes bust.

Cause of death?  Corruption, both legal and illegal, plus a classic case of reactionary liberalism in which the governing Democrats — there’s been no Republican mayor in half a century — simply refused to adapt to the straitened economic circumstances that followed the post-World War II auto boom.

Corruption of the criminal sort was legendary. The former mayor currently serving time engaged in a breathtaking range of fraud, extortion and racketeering. And he didn’t act alone. The legal corruption was the cozy symbiosis of Democratic politicians and powerful unions, especially the public-sector unions that gave money to elect the politicians who negotiated their contracts — with wildly unsustainable health and pension benefits.

When our great industrial competitors were digging out from the rubble of World War II, Detroit’s automakers ruled the world. Their imagined sense of inherent superiority bred complacency. Management grew increasingly bureaucratic and inflexible. Unions felt entitled to the extraordinary wages, benefits and work rules they’d bargained for in the fat years. In time, they all found themselves being overtaken by more efficient, more adaptable, more hungry foreign producers.

The market ultimately forced the car companies into reform, restructuring, the occasional bankruptcy and eventual recovery. The city of Detroit, however, lacking market constraints, just kept overspending — $100 million annually since 2008. The city now has about $19 billion in obligations it has no chance of meeting. So much city revenue had to be diverted to creditors and pensioners there was practically nothing left to run the city. Forty percent of the streetlights don’t work, two-thirds of the parks are closed and emergency police response time averages nearly an hour — if it ever comes at all.

Sound familiar?  Here are some similarities between The Philadelphia School District and Detroit:

Corruption

Philadelphia has been governed by Democrats for half a century—there hasn’t been a Republican mayor in over 60 years.  Corruption of the criminal sort has also been legendary.  In 2007 Vince Fumo, a Democrat who represented a South Philadelphia district in the Pennsylvania Senate from 1978 to 2008, was the subject of a Federal grand jury that named Fumo in a 137 count indictment, including the misuse of $1 million of state funds and $1 million from his charity for personal and campaign use; he was found guilty in 2009 of all 137 counts (ironically, Fumo just got out last month and is now living in a West Philly halfway house).

This is a common theme in Philadelphia.  According to NBC 10:

You don’t have to look far to find other Philadelphia politicians who went to prison on corruption charges and came back for a second act.

In fact, there’s a whole vocabulary about it among city pols. They’ll say somebody “had a problem” and went away. Many of the city’s 69 Democratic ward leaders used to call the federal pen at Allenwood “the 70th Ward” – kind of the way celebrities talk about rehab. It could happen to anybody.

The late state Sen. Henry “Buddy” Cianfrani came back after his prison term and worked as a political consultant and powerbroker for many years. Former City Councilman Jimmy Tayoun, always the entrepreneur, started a political newspaper, the Philadelphia Public Record, which is still going and is read by city and state pols everywhere.

Former U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers, who went down in the Abscam scandal, is still influential in South Philly, where his brother Matthew is a ward leader.

As for current fraud, waste, and abuse: From 2008 to 2011, the Ackerman administration spent nearly $10 billion, with little to show for it other than a detailed audit of the PSD’s financial practices by the IRS (and this doesn’t include the usual antics from the usual suspects, such as Chaka Fattah jr., etc.).

Pensions

Although Philadelphia schoolteachers are not paid nearly as well as their suburban counterparts (we face harsher working conditions, have less resources, and spend thousands of dollars of our own money), funding teacher pensions has become a legitimate concern.  Unfortunately, the baby-boomers who were once contributing to the system are now taking from it, and this has called into question the sustainability of the entire system, prompting many of my generation to ask the question: will our pensions be around in 20 years when we retire?

Deteriorating Resources

It is true that Philadelphia public schools are looking eerily like the city of Detroit.  Instead of nonworking streetlights they are nonworking computers and heating units; instead of closed parks there are closed schools; and instead of long response times from police and fire fighters, there are long response times from counselors, school security, and nurses—because they are woefully lacking.

Tax, Borrow, Spend

Like Detroit, Philadelphia continues to borrow, spend, and raise taxes.

As reported in March of 2012 by phillymag.com:

Counting the previous increases in the parking tax, hotel tax, sales tax and property tax, Nutter is on course to raise taxes all five years he has been in office. . . . Nutter is on course for a tax-hiking legacy unmatched since Mayor Rizzo’s fiscal insanity drove the city to the brink of bankruptcy.

In a city that already had one of the highest overall tax burdens in the country, five years of additional tax hikes could take a generation to undo. The result is an even more uncompetitive city.

Last year alone, the city borrowed $300 million to run the schools, and still faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit over the next five years.

Solution?

Tragically, the Philadelphia establishment continues to turn a blind eye to this situation, and continues to blame Governor Corbett, who’s been in office less than three years, for the mess they find themselves in.  Sure, Corbett’s funding formula has put Philadelphia in a pinch financially (although he’s given Philly Schools nearly $1.3 billion in funds this year alone), but fixing this formula is only a small part of stabilizing the PSD as a whole.

What Philadelphia needs is a paradigm shift—a total change in attitude and culture.  At the core of this is the need for everyone—parents, students, teachers, administrators, etc.—to go from passengers to drivers.  We need to stop being victims and start being captains of our own ships.

How do we do this?  Stop being sheep.  Stop groupthink and continuing to vote for the status quo.  Embrace individual achievement over stagnating collectivism.  Parent your children (that means you, fathers).  Pay your property taxes.  Get involved in your children’s educations.  Hold one another accountable.  Meet deadlines.  Speak out against corruption (yes, blow the whistle and snitch!)  Show up for work, on time.  Enforce current policy—gun laws, student discipline, truancy, etc.—before enacting new, unenforceable (dog and pony show) regulations.  Give no more than a second chance to anyone.

Nothing is free.  There is no perpetual motion machine.  Debts and deficits, at the local as well as the federal level, are real and mean something.  The fantasy that there exists some unlimited amount of money out there in limbo that some rich, (perhaps racist), miserly politician or one-percenter is hoarding (and that we need to rally or march to extract) is just that—a fantasy.  As Philadelphians we need to work together and make do for ourselves.  We need to sacrifice, and make do.

A new state-funding formula is just the first step in saving city schools.  If we don’t change our culture, the Philadelphia School District will end up just like the Motor City.

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On Corbett Bashing and the Common Core

by Christopher Paslay

Common Core texts indoctrinate young children and teach them to manipulate facts for social advocacy.  Sound familiar, Philadelphia? 

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

This is the philosophy I use when I teach students in my high school English classes how to write.  There is no substitute for the right word—no true synonym—and until a writer figures this out, he won’t be able to fully articulate his thoughts.  This is the case whether you are writing a narrative, informational, or persuasive essay (the Common Core’s preferred term for “persuasive” is now “argumentative”).

Good writing, especially in today’s culture of limited attention spans, is focused, clear, and accurate.  Good writers can say more in less space—and they can back their writing with examples, details, and evidence.

This philosophy has worked well with my own students at Swenson Arts and Technology High School.  On the 2012 PSSA Writing Test, 74% of my 11th graders scored proficient or advanced—a whopping 28.1% percent higher than the Philadelphia School District average, which was only 45.9%.

Unfortunately, some English Language Arts texts being promoted by the Common Core are no longer focused on teaching students succinct, accurate writing that avoids the use of flimsy persuasive techniques (such as red herrings, overgeneralizing, circular arguments, name calling, etc.), but on writing that actually encourages the use of emotionally charged propaganda for social advocacy.  In short, some ELA texts supported by the Common Core are not making young children free thinkers, but politically indoctrinating them (type the phrase “Common Core indoctrination” on YouTube and see the results).

One interesting case of indoctrinating students and promoting the use of propagandistic writing for social advocacy is the state of Utah’s first grade ELA primer Voices: Writing and Literature, recommended by, and aligned with, the Common Core.  On the surface it appears the text is about literature and writing, but a closer look reveals a major theme is social justice and social advocacy.  This, amazingly, is being introduced not to college undergraduates in Community Organizing 101, but to first graders!

One section in Voices: Writing and Literature teaches young children how to play fast and loose with facts by using emotionally charged propagandistic words to elicit emotions and bring about liberal social change.  It doesn’t teach children to use the right word, as Twain would have advocated (as well as any respectable writing teacher), but to use a word that will get folks stirred-up for social justice, whether or not that word is true, evidence-based, or accurate.

Click on the below YouTube video to see for yourself:

Because the Philadelphia School District is flat broke and has no money to invest in a new set of textbooks, such a primer may not be made available to our city’s school children.  However, the political indoctrination of School District students—and the teaching of how to play fast and loose with facts—is well underway.  Groups like Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union, who often partner with politically motivated adult organization such as the Education Law Center, are well schooled on the use of propaganda in writing.

All three of these groups frequently use “correlation to prove causation”—a logical fallacy and standard propaganda technique—to imply that Philadelphia public schoolteachers are discriminating against minority students because black students are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers (and these groups continue to claim this despite the fact that no documented cases of racial discrimination by a Philadelphia teacher against a students exists . . . except, of course, the discrimination against Sam Pawlucy by a black geometry teacher for wearing a Romney T-shirt in class).

The newly founded “Fund Philly Schools Now” does much of the same in terms of their blatant use of propaganda.  Launched to help raise money for struggling city schools, an admirable goal, their website states:

Since Gov. Corbett took office, it has become clear that when he must make the choice between tax breaks for corporations and much-needed investments in our children, he chooses corporations and wealthy donors every time. The crisis in Philadelphia public schools has been manufactured by Gov. Corbett. He is starving the city of resources and then using teachers as scapegoats and Philadelphia families as pawns.

Propagandistic?  No question.  With Federal stimulus money gone, Governor Corbett has been forced to make due with less, and this has no doubt adversely impacted Philadelphia public schools (as well as most public schools in PA).  But the crisis in city schools was not “manufactured by Gov. Corbett.”

During the Ackerman years, from July of 2008 to July of 2011, the School District blew through nearly $10 billion, spending so reckless it prompted the IRS to open a detailed audit of their financial practices.  The rapid expansion of charter schools—nearly 100 of them in 10 years—also greatly contributed to the School District’s financial crisis.  There is also the matter of Philadelphia residents owing over $500 million in delinquent property taxes.  And the fact that the School District loses millions of dollars in unreturned textbooks and stolen computer equipment each year.  And the reality that recently retired baby-boomers are overwhelming the pension system.  And all the cronyism/nepotism over the past five years from the usual suspects . . . Ackerman, Archie, Evans, Gamble, Fattah Jr., etc.

All Corbett?  Please.

Does the School District badly need money?  Absolutely.  Do I want to see our city’s children get the resources they need?  Most definitely.  But the theatrics and use of propaganda to get money is getting old.  People are growing tired of it.  Attacking public officials is becoming counterproductive (just ask Mayor Nutter).  Why does the rest of the state hate Philadelphia, think we are a cesspool?  Perhaps they are tired of Victimology 101.  It’s like with affirmative action: If groups in need simply took responsibility for their problems and said, I’m having some trouble keeping up, can you please lend a hand?, people would bend over backwards to help out.  But it doesn’t work like that.  Affirmative action in 21st century America goes more like this:  It’s YOUR fault I have problems, so give me what you owe me, now!

Not the best way to get the help you need, or to get at the true root of problems.

Neither is using propaganda to bring about reform (or to teach our students English Language Arts).

According to the mission statement of the Common Core:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.

Dr. Carole Hornsby Haynes, a noted curriculum specialist and former public school teacher, disagrees with the Common Core’s mission statement and feels they have an ulterior agenda.  She writes in a recent article:

Common Core is not about “core knowledge” but rather is the foundation for left-wing student indoctrination to create activists for the social justice agenda. Education is being nationalized, just like our healthcare, to eliminate local control over education, imposing a one-size-fits-all, top-down curriculum that will also affect private schools and homeschoolers.

I don’t know if Dr. Hornsby Haynes is totally correct about the Common Core, but I know this: ELA teachers should teach students how to make strong, factual arguments, not how to play loose with the facts to support their own political agendas.

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District Cuts 676 Teachers, Despite 1,500 Teacher Vacancies

by Ray Guzman and Christopher Paslay

According to the Philadelphia School District’s Teacher Vacancy List, the district is seeking 1,540 teachers for the 2013-14 school year. 

The Philadelphia School District, according to its website, has 1,540 teacher vacancies for the 2013-14 school year.  Of the 376 schools that currently need teachers, 47 are high schools (485 vacancies); 6 are alternative schools (28 vacancies); 15 are middle schools (89 vacancies); and 308 are elementary schools (938 vacancies).

The revelation that the School District is seeking over 1,500 teachers for next fall is shocking but nonetheless true, at least according their website.  Benjamin Franklin High School, for example, is seeking no less than 33 teachers for next school year: 6 social studies, 4 English, 4 ESOL, 4 math, 3 biology, 2 chemistry, 2 art, 1 Spanish, 1 music, 1 learning support math, 1 bilingual math, 1 learning support English, 1 life skills support, 1 culinary arts, and 1 business information computer technology.

South Philadelphia High School needs 34 teachers.  Edison High School needs 78.  Strawberry Mansion needs 36.  Northeast and Washington high schools need 22 and 14 teachers, respectively.

And on and on it goes.

Although the School District has not released any official numbers, these vacancies are most likely the result of teachers either retiring or quitting over budget concerns and the bleak outlook for the 2013-14 school year (well done, Boston Consulting Group).  How has the School District responded to what appears to be a massive teacher shortage for the 2013-14 school year?

By laying-off 676 teachers.

It’s true.  Last week, 676 teachers received pinks slips terminating them as employees of the Philadelphia School District as of July 1st.  This means they will no longer receive health insurance and must file for unemployment.

The Philadelphia School District’s plans for the coming school year—from school closings to the recent layoffs of 3,700 staff—are fishy, to say the least.  Much of it fails to pass the smell test.  The savings achieved on the shuttering of 23 schools and the merge or relocation of five others has been hotly debated.  So has the preposterous idea that schools will be able to run without counselors, nurses, vice principals, secretaries, hall monitors, or learning support staff.

It’s become quite clear that the Philadelphia School District and School Reform Commission are posturing—playing “doomsday” games in front of city and state politicians to squeeze more money from taxpayers and most importantly, to box the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers into a corner in an attempt to get over $100 million in labor concessions from them; the School District hopes to manipulate the PFT the way they did SEIU 32BJ Local 1201.

These “doomsday” games are flat out dangerous.  Although the School District does have legitimate financial problems and money is genuinely scarce (due in large part to the fraud, waste, and abuse of the Ackerman administration), the laying off of nearly 20 percent of its staff, especially 676 teachers, may come back to bite them.

It’s apparent by the employment opportunities on their own website that come September 1st, the School District will need to fill 1,500 teacher vacancies simply to make the schools run.  And when you do the math—when you bring back the 676 teachers who were laid off and subtract them from the 1,500 plus teachers needed—this comes to a massive shortage of over 800 teachers.  This, of course, doesn’t factor in the vacancies created by teachers who quit or retire at the end of the summer.

Why did the School District cut 676 teachers to begin with?  Political posturing, as I’ve mentioned above.  The SRC wants to put the squeeze on the PFT, Mayor Nutter, and Governor Corbett.  They are also doing it to save money—two month’s worth of health insurance premiums, to be exact.

Seniority is also an issue.  Creating all these vacancies gives principals more power to hire their own staff.

A closer look at the teacher vacancy list reveals something else: the School District is full of bologna when it claims it will end all of its art and music programs.  If they were truly cutting all art and music (and not just putting on a grand show for all the city and state to see), why in the world would there exist vacancies on the School District website calling for various art and music teachers?

Currently, there are 78 music teacher positions, and over 100 art-related positions, posted on the website.

Come September, after the Philadelphia School District is done trying to consume itself to save a little money, and after they have finished successfully tap-dancing for tens of millions of dollars in cash from city and state legislators (and, surprise, surprise, find extra money in their coffers), much of its programs will be restored; the School District can only violate state laws for so long.

The kicker, of course, will be finding a way to deal with the massive teacher shortage they have created.

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Taxing Nonprofits Could Help Save Philly Schools

by Christopher Paslay

Philadelphia’s multi-billion dollar nonprofit sector must start paying its fair share. 

According to the Philadelphia Foundation’s Nonprofit Study 2010, there are over 3,500 nonprofits in Philadelphia.  In 2007 alone, they made more than $25 billion in revenue, which was 7.7 percent more than they made in 2000.  These nonprofits—which provide services that focus on the arts, the environment, animal rights, education, health, civil rights, housing, food, recreation, and the like—had nearly $47 billion in total assets in 2007.

Interestingly, these nonprofits pay no real estate tax, despite billions of dollars in assets.  For example, the Kimmel Center as of 2010 had $16,449,000 in liquid assets (cash, grants, contributions, etc.) and 267,645,000 in total assets (endowment funds, land, building and equipment, etc.), yet are exempt from paying $5 million in annual property taxes.

According to a 2007 article in the New York Times:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy surveyed 23 cities to try to determine which nonprofits that seek public support — excluding foundations, government and religious groups — receive property-tax exemptions. Such exemptions accounted for more than $1.5 billion a year, with more than half that amount forgiven in New York City and Boston. . . . In terms of value, the biggest exemptions after New York and Boston were in Los Angeles, Washington, Houston and Philadelphia. . . .

The Chronicle’s survey highlighted several well-known properties beyond hospitals that receive big property-tax breaks. These include the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, exempted from $18.4 million in property tax; the Chrysler Building in New York, owned by the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art college, an exemption worth $17.5 million; and in Philadelphia, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, exempted from $5 million in annual property tax.

The Philadelphia School District is facing a $300 million budget deficit next school year.  District officials are asking everyone to make sacrifices to help close this hole, and have demanded that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers make tens of millions of dollars in concessions via wage cuts.  Officials are also asking for an additional $120 million from the state, and $60 million from the city, some of which may come from new property taxes.

Mayor Nutter’s new real estate tax assessment—AVI (Actual Value Initiative)—has ruffled the feathers of some City Council members, however.  According to a February 28th article in the Philadelphia City Paper:

This morning, City Councilwoman Maria Quninones-Sanchez quietly and without speechifying, offered what may be a solution to one of the central problems created by the Actual Value Initiative, the city’s property-tax reform effort. The problem: An estimated $200 million of the tax burden is being shifted from large commercial properties to residential ones, while small businesses are also in many cases expecting to see their taxes skyrocket. Sanchez’s solution: Put some of that burden back onto the large commercial properties by way of the Use & Occupancy (U&O) tax, which is applied to commercial tenants, and let the city keep some of that money to use for tax relief for the rest of us.

What’s curious is that Sanchez didn’t mention the problem with Philadelphia’s 3,500 nonprofits—the fact that they bring in $25 billion in annual revenue and have nearly $47 billion in assets—but pay zilch in property tax, money that could help bail out Philadelphia’s struggling public schools.  Why should our city’s students go without counselors, nurses, sports, art, and music while mega nonprofits like the Kimmel Center are sitting on a quarter of a billion dollars in total assets and get a $5 million break in annual property taxes?

Fight for Philly, “a grassroots coalition of residents, community groups, neighborhood associations, faith organizations and labor groups,” feels mega nonprofits like the Kimmel Center should start pitching in and shouldering some of the load.  Earlier this month, they delivered tax petitions to City Council and Mayor Nutter asking for better school funding, demanding that “mega non-profits pay taxes on their profitable commercial property and contribute fair ‘good neighbor’ payments for city services from which they benefit.”

I agree with Fight for Philly—City nonprofits should no longer sit back and get a free ride.  City Councilwoman Maria Quninones-Sanchez’s new tax reform bill should also include Philadelphia’s 3,500 not-for-profits, which earn $25 billion in annual revenue.  Even a small real estate tax on these organizations could generate millions of badly needed dollars for Philadelphia’s struggling public schools.

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Pedro Ramos is not Scott Walker, and Pennsylvania is not Wisconsin

by Christopher Paslay

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos may be emboldened by Scott Walker’s recent victory over Big Labor, but the Keystone State is a far cry from the Badger State.       

It appears that Philadelphia School Reform Commission chairman Pedro Ramos is suffering from Scott Walker Syndrome.  His recent attempt to push legislation that would extend the SRC’s power to nullify union contracts and unilaterally dictate salary and benefits to School District employees is curiously timed.  You’d almost think Ramos has become emboldened by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s Assembly Bill 11, also known as his “Budget Repair Bill,” which limits collective bargaining by public-sector unions, caps salary increases, and forces workers to pay more for their pensions and health benefits.

Members of the Philadelphia Democratic House delegation, however, do not seem to be as enamored by Scott Walker’s recent victory over Big Labor.  Walker may have survived Tuesday’s recall election, but this hasn’t inspired Pennsylvania state legislators to get on board with the SRC’s surprise legislative amendment that would further cripple School District unions and their bargaining power.

Although Pennsylvania’s Act 46 already strips the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers of their right to strike—giving the SRC the power to unilaterally impose contact terms and limit collective bargaining—Ramos feels he needs even more power.

According to Kristen Graham’s 6/8/12 Inquirer story:

State Rep. Michael H. O’Brien (D., Phila.), who was at the meeting, said Ramos admitted the SRC was attempting to sell a legislative amendment Ramos needed because current law “didn’t give the SRC enough juice,” in O’Brien’s words.

The SRC’s new ploy for more power was apparently an unpleasant surprise for many, including Mayor Nutter and members of the Philadelphia Democratic House delegation.

Someone, perhaps Nutter himself, needs to tell Pedro Ramos that he’s not Scott Walker.  And while he’s at it, he needs to explain to the SRC that Pennsylvania (and for the purposes of this argument, Philadelphia) is not Wisconsin.  For starters, Pennsylvania has a balanced budget (although the Philadelphia School District is still facing a deficit, but this deficit was created by the SRC itself).  Second, Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System was just overhauled in 2010, cutting pension benefits and increasing member contributions.  Third, collective bargaining by the largest teachers’ union in the state—the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers—has already been severely limited for over a decade by the passing of Act 46.

Here’s a comparison between Pennsylvania and Wisconsin on three hot button issues: collective bargaining rights; retirement; and health insurance.

Collective Bargaining

Massive protests broke out in Wisconsin last year when Governor Scott Walker passed his Budget Repair Bill, which limited the collective bargaining power of public-sector unions.  According to the Greenbay Press Gazette:

The bill would make various changes to limit collective bargaining for most public employees to wages. Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index (CPI) unless approved by referendum.

Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the new contract is settled. Collective bargaining units are required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union.

Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. These changes take effect upon the expiration of existing contracts.

But when you compare this to the restrictions imposed on the largest teachers union in Pennsylvania by the passing of Act 46 over a decade ago, it is relatively small potatoes.  According to an article in the University of Penn’s Journal of Labor and Employment Law:

The state takeover of Philadelphia city schools will obviously have an effect on Philadelphia teachers’ ability to bargain collectively for contract rights. . . . While the system is under the control of the SRC, teachers are prohibited from striking in order to secure contract rights. . . . For example, teachers could be faced with a significantly lengthened school year, less preparation time, and larger classes, all without the opportunity to bargain for any compensation for these impositions. . . . Also, the district would not be required to discuss “decisions related to reduction in force.” This allowance for the district, coupled with the fact that, under Act 86, the SRC may make decisions to suspend professional employees without regard to tenure protection has potentially dire consequences for the professional security of educators. In a situation involving layoffs, for instance, teachers who have years of experience could be suspended before new hires.

In effect, under Act 46, the SRC already has the power to unilaterally impose contract terms, overhaul traditional schools and turn them into charters, lengthen the school day and year without compensating workers, layoff teachers regardless of seniority or tenure, and takes away the union’s right to strike, among other things.

As for union dues: Philadelphia public school teachers can opt out of joining the union, but they are still required by the state to pay something called “Fair Share,” which basically means that they have to pay union dues anyway, which is about 1 percent of their salary.

Pensions and Retirement

Until Scott Walker passed his Budget Repair Bill, state, school district, and municipal employees in Wisconsin paid little to nothing for their pensions.  Now members of the Wisconsin Retirement System must contribute 50 percent of the annual pension payment, which means public school teachers have to start contributing about 5.8 percent of every check toward their pensions.

Since 2001, Philadelphia school teachers, who are members of Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System, were required to pay 7.5 percent of every check to their pensions.  Legislation passed in 2010 now requires new teachers to pay 10.3 percent of every check toward their pensions if they want to receive the same pension as those hired before December of 2010; those new teachers who agree to accept a modified pension multiplier (smaller pension) can continue to pay at the 7.5 percent rate.

Health Insurance

Before the Walker bill, Wisconsin state employees paid about 6 percent of their health insurance costs.  Now they will be forced to kick in double that—about 12 percent of the average cost of annual premiums.

Philadelphia public school teachers have excellent benefits, and at little cost.  According to the current contract between the PFT and PSD, teachers have to contribute at most 3 – 5 percent of annual premiums, and many teachers pay nothing.  Co-pays do continue to go up, but teachers are in a good position here; it’s inevitable that in the future, sacrifices will have to be made, and employees may have to kick in more money.  This, of course, can be agreed upon at the bargaining table, and there is absolutely no need for new legislation to be proposed by the SRC to get this done.

The SRC’s recent attempt to push legislation to further cripple School District unions is uncalled for.  The SRC has already sent layoff notices to 2,700 service workers who are SEIU 32BJ union members, and is planning to privatize neighborhood schools and cut unions by turning 40 percent of District schools into charters by 2017.

Some can argue what Walker did in Wisconsin was justified; unions in the Badger State needed to be reeled-in to keep Wisconsin from falling off an economic cliff, which is why 30 percent of union workers voted in Tuesday’s recall election to keep Walker in office.  But the situation is a bit different in the Keystone State.

Pedro Ramos is no Scott Walker.  Shame on him for trying to use Walker’s momentum to push his misguided and unnecessary legislation to further cripple organized labor in Philadelphia.

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Filed under PFT, School Budget, SRC

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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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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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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Arlene Ackerman’s Million Dollar Lynching

by Christopher Paslay

Activist Novella Williams complains Arlene Ackerman was ‘lynched’ by Mayor Nutter and other local leaders.   

At yesterday’s School Reform Commission meeting, activist Novella Williams complained that former Philadelphia school’s chief Arlene Ackerman was lynched by the SRC and local African American politicians, including SRC Chairman Robert Archie, Mayor Nutter, state Rep. Dwight Evans, and Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery.

“She deserved not to be lynched by three of four black men,” Williams said.  “I didn’t think my men was going to destroy her.”

William’s comments were similar to those Jesse Jackson made about Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in June of 2010, when Gilbert personally attacked LeBron James and said that he “cowardly betrayed” the city of Cleveland by taking $120 million to play in Miami. 

“[Gilbert] speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Jackson said in a public statement.  “His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave.” 

A runaway slave that makes $120 million, that is. 

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan also used the slavery analogy, calling the NBA a “big plantation” on which LeBron James was a “sharecropper.”       

Though Ackerman is no NBA superstar, her base salary of nearly $350,000 for the past three years was close to the NBA league minimum for a rookie, which in 2010-11 was $490,180; Ackerman was also given a car, two chauffeurs salaried at $44,000 each, a BlackBerry, a cellphone and usage, a laptop, and a printer. 

And now Ackerman is being paid, all told, over a million dollars to walk away. 

As one person wrote on Philly.com’s comment board, “If getting a million dollars for not working is considered a lynching, sign me up. That’s like hitting the lottery.”

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Are School District Leaders Protected by Powers in Washington?

by Christopher Paslay

“The school superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, is here and doing a great job.”

            –President Barack Obama’s remarks from his speech at Julia R. Masterman High School, Philadelphia, PA, September 14, 2010. 

There is one thing noteworthy about the way administrators have run the Philadelphia School District over the past three years: their education agenda and initiatives are right from President Obama’s playbook in Washington. 

Early in 2009, when the President chose former Chicago schools superintendent Arne Duncan as his Education Secretary, there emerged a new plan for public education in America.  Known as the “National Reform Model,” Obama and Duncan set in motion a movement that has radically changed traditional public schools as we know them (tragically, as test scores and graduation rates continue to show, not for the better).

There are four school intervention models included in Obama’s national reform plan.  They are titled “Turnaround,” “Restart,” “School Closure,” and “Transformation.”

As explained by PSEA.org:

“The Turnaround model requires schools to implement nine broad strategies, including replacement of the principals, high-quality professional development, adoption of new governance, and replacement of at least 50 percent of staff.

The Transformation model includes a new evaluation system for teachers and principals, high-quality professional development and design and development of curriculum with teacher and principal involvement.

The Restart model enables a district to re-open a school as a charter school or elect to have an education management organization run the school.

School Closure enables districts to transfer students to other, higher-achieving schools within the district’s boundaries, within a reasonable proximity.”

Do these reform plans sound a lot like those interventions contained in Dr. Ackerman’s Imagine 2014?  The Philadelphia Inquirer thinks they do.  In an editorial published in September of 2010, the newspaper wrote, “much of [Dr. Ackerman’s] five-year strategic plan almost mirrors Obama’s proposals.”   

In some places the Ackerman and Obama agenda are indeed identical.  In fact, in 2010, in order to receive stimulus money from the federal government’s SIG program (School Improvement Grant), the Philadelphia School District literally had to sign an agreement with the government stating that they agreed to commit to the four intervention models.       

And sign they did.  The District sold its soul to Washington and dove headfirst into a reform plan that took control away from the citizens of Philadelphia and placed it—along with millions of tax dollars—in the hands of charter schools and education management organizations and all manner of untested, experimental reform programs.   

The fact that District officials so eagerly embraced the National Reform Model and are pushing an agenda direct from Washington might explain why they are able to get away with so many missteps (think past the current $629 million deficit to the 2010 controversy over security contracts and even past that to the 2009 debacle with Asian students at South Philly High School), any of which would have normally cost a top administrator his or her job.     

In 2007, when former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Paul Vallas discovered a “surprise” $73 million deficit, he resigned.  Granted, he had another job waiting for him in New Orleans, but there was real pressure coming from Mayor Street to hold him accountable.  Likewise, there was pressure to hold James Nevels, the Chairman of the School Reform Commission, accountable; Nevels also resigned and was replaced with new leadership. 

It seems clear, however, that current District leaders have no plans of going anywhere.  Perhaps the powers that be in Washington have too much invested in the Philadelphia School District and the current direction it’s heading.  This just might explain why Mayor Nutter, as well as the rest of the City, continues to stand down to School District officials.       

Of course, Mayor Nutter will claim differently.  He will tell the public that he has things in control, that he just made the District sign an “Accountability Agreement,” but what is this, really?  Is it anything more than smoke and mirrors?  (Is the pending audit by the IRS, which is now in limbo, much of the same?) 

This isn’t to take away from the recent efforts of a few brave local leaders—such as Philadelphia City Councilmen Bill Green and PA State Reps Angel Cruz and Mike McGeehan—to try to bring an end to the District’s troubled leadership.

McGeehan continues to call for Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s resignation in order to bring some financial credibility back to the District in the eyes of Harrisburg. 

In a letter to PA Governor Tom Corbett, McGeehan stated the following: “I am requesting that you, on behalf of the taxpayers of the Commonwealth and the school children of Philadelphia, compel the School Reform Commission to remove Superintendent Ackerman. The continuing controversy surrounding Ms. Ackerman does not serve the best interest of the taxpayers or children of Philadelphia. I ask you to use your authority to request the SRC to immediately end her tumultuous tenure.”  

State Rep. Angel Cruz has also called for laws to regulate the power of the District superintendent.  “The SRC clearly is not properly managing the superintendent or the district,” Cruz told his colleagues in Harrisburg. “My bill would give voters the option to choose the people who are running our school district.”

Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Green, in addition, blasted District leadership in a recent Inquire article headlined, “School District has a management deficit.”  In it Green stated, “Recent events have shown that the crisis at the Philadelphia School District is more about oversight and stewardship than it is about dollars and cents.”

Even the local press seems to be questioning the District’s leadership.  In a recent poll philly.com asked readers, “Does the Philadelphia School District need new management?”  The results were quite telling:  371 folks said YES (97.4%); 3 answered No (.8%); and 7 responded Not Sure (1.8%).

Not that the District seems to care about what anybody thinks about their ability to do their job; they continue to operate as if it were business as usual.  And all the while Philadelphia’s children—as well as the tax payers—continue to pick up the tab. 

Tragically, perhaps because of a blessing from Washington, it appears as if this pattern of reckless management has no foreseeable end.

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