Tag Archives: Michael Nutter

Valueless Condoms for a Valueless School District

by Christopher Paslay

The Philadelphia School District chooses the convenience of condoms over the values of dignity and restraint. 

There are two basic ways to avoid the spread of STD’s among high school students: teach them how to practice restraint or give them condoms.  The Philadelphia School District and Mayor Nutter have chosen to double-down on the latter.  In 22 high schools across the city, condoms are now available in clear dispensers outside the nurse’s office.

“The reality is, many of our teenagers, regardless of what adults think, are engaged in sexual activities,” Mayor Nutter said last week. “Discussion about whether or not they should be sexually active is an appropriate discussion, but if they are, then we need to make sure they’re engaged in safe sexual practices.”

The tragic part of this whole issue is that the discussion about abstaining from sex (practicing restraint) is not happening in Philadelphia public high schools.  In fact, the concept of abstinence has been branded as “religious” by those looking to inject politics into the issue of STDs.  A closer look at the idea of abstinence (or restraint) reveals it is a value or lifestyle philosophy, not a religious principle.  And values, such as approaching sex with dignity and reserving it for the most deserving of partners is something that should be taught in public schools.  Sexual promiscuity comes with consequences, such as HIV and out-of-wedlock births, both of which have a negative impact on education and quality of life.

Kids in public schools should be taught as much.  Distributing condoms is fine, but a lesson on restraint should be part of the package; perhaps there could even be a short Use Only with that Special Person on the condom wrapper.  But again, those looking to inject politics into the issue rail against any notion of abstinence or restraint.  Why?  Because abstinence and restraint are viewed as conservative and are frequently associated with those who support traditional, heterosexual marriage.

Earlier this year President Obama, who drastically cut funding for abstinence-only sex education programs in his first term, had a minor change of heart and decided to place Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education Program on the Office of Adolescent Health list of approved groups eligible for government funds.  Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber said Heritage Keepers had met the criteria, “gone through a transparent, rigorous review process” and had “demonstrated outcomes.”

Progressive liberals heard the news and went berserk.  Accord to an article on Salon:

. . . over a dozen major organizations, including the ACLU and Human Rights Campaign, asked Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius to explain Heritage Keepers’ inclusion. They said the program “ostracizes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth; promotes heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable family structure; withholds life-saving information from sexually active youth; and uses fear-based messages to shame youth who have been sexually active and youth living in ‘nontraditional’ households.”

A visit to Heritage Keepers website paints a more inclusive, holistic, and research-based picture of their sex education program, however:

The Heritage Keepers® Abstinence Education program encourages teens to develop a strong sense of personal identity and worth, set protective boundaries, resist negative peer pressure, determine and protect personal values and goals, and set high standards for themselves. A significant amount of the curriculum focuses on reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), specifically discussing STD symptoms, treatments/cures, and prevention (all with information provided by the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and approved for medical accuracy). Condom efficacy is also explained in relation to each STD.

The most recent publication of the Heritage Keepers® curriculum in 2008 was approved by the US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Population Affairs, for medical accuracy and sound referencing. Heritage ensures that the curriculum is research-based with over 80 references from widely accepted social science research to support curriculum information. The Heritage Keepers® curricula have long been approved by the National Abstinence Clearinghouse for adherence to federal A-H legislative requirements for abstinence education as set forth in Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act. The Heritage Keepers® program also meets all 66 standards of the CDC-funded SMARTool (Systematic Method for Assessing Risk-avoidance Tool).

Unfortunately, organizations that strive to help young people “develop a strong sense of personal identity and worth, set protective boundaries, resist negative peer pressure, determine and protect personal values and goals, and set high standards” are just too darn conservative for organizations such as the ACLU; regardless of research showing the program helps keep youth free of STDs and unwanted pregnancies, organizations like Heritage are on the wrong side of the political fence.

The Philadelphia School District, as evidenced by the fact that they are pushing condoms while refusing to promote values such as abstinence and restraint, has voiced its position loud and clear.  Who needs conservative restraint when we have the progressive convenience of condoms?

Again, this is unfortunate.  Abstinence and restraint are life skills that transcend politics—rise above race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.  As Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist abbot, published author, and noted scholar on Eastern philosophy wrote in his essay “The Dignity of Restraint”:

What’s good about it? Well, for one thing, if we don’t have any restraint, we don’t have any control over where our lives are going. Anything that comes our way immediately pulls us into its wake. We don’t have any strong sense of priorities, of what’s really worthwhile, of what’s not worthwhile, of the pleasures we’d gain by saying no to other pleasures. How do we rank the pleasures in our lives, the happiness, the sense of well-being that we get in various ways? Actually, there’s a sense of well-being that comes from being totally independent, from not needing other things. If that state of well-being doesn’t have a chance to develop, if we’re constantly giving in to our impulse to do this or take that, we’ll never know what that well-being is.

At the same time, we’ll never know our impulses. When you simply ride with your impulses, you don’t understand their force. They’re like the currents below the surface of a river: only if you try to build a dam across the river will you detect those currents and appreciate how strong they are. So we have to look at what’s important in life, develop a strong sense of priorities, and be willing to say no to the currents that would lead to less worthwhile pleasures. . . .

It’s important that we realize the role that restraint plays in overcoming the problem of suffering and finding true well-being for ourselves. You realize that you’re not giving up anything you really need. You’re a lot better off without it. There’s a part of the mind that resists this truth, and our culture hasn’t been very helpful at all because it encourages that resistance: “Give in to this impulse, give in to that impulse, obey your thirst. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for you spiritually. Watch out, if you repress your desires you’re going to get tied up in psychological knots.” The lessons our culture teaches us—to go out and buy, buy, buy; be greedy, be greedy; give in, give in—are all over the place. And what kind of dignity comes from following those messages? The dignity of a fish gobbling down bait. We’ve got to unlearn those habits, unlearn those messages, if we want to revive words like dignity and restraint, and to reap the rewards that the realities of dignity and restraint have to offer our minds.

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Arlene Ackerman Voted America’s Top Urban Superintendent, Ten Months Ago Today

by Christopher Paslay

Last fall, before the PSSA test cheating scandal, before the Philadelphia School District faced a $630 million budget deficit, before the IRS audit into District financial practices and the no-bid security contract debacle with IBS Communications and the “Accountability Agreement” with the city—before politicians began proposing laws to limit her power and writing letters to the governor requesting her immediate termination—Dr. Ackerman was the best urban superintendent in the country. 

On October 21st, 2010, Dr. Ackerman received the Richard R. Green Award, the nation’s top prize for urban education leadership awarded by the Council of the Great City Schools

“Arlene Ackerman is one of the best big-city school superintendents in the country and is most worthy of the nation’s highest individual award in urban education,” said Council Executive Director Michael Casserly in a press release dated 10/21/10. “She is smart, dedicated, innovative, effective, and completely committed to our urban schoolchildren. Our sincere congratulations.”

In a testimonial video presented at the award ceremony (which took place while the federal government was conducting a civil-rights inquiry into racial violence against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School), the City and School District also spoke Dr. Ackerman’s praises. 

“The city of Philadelphia has benefited greatly from Dr. Arlene Ackerman’s courageous leadership,” Mayor Michael Nutter said.  “She has shown remarkable dedication to our city’s students and families and has given renewed hope to all of us by showing us just how truly great we can be.”       

School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie said, “Congratulations, Dr. Ackerman, on being the recipient of this award.  Through your leadership qualities, the School District of Philadelphia has been transformed into one of the best in the United States.”

“Dr. Ackerman is a strong woman of faith,” said Dr. Kevin R. Johnson, Senior Pastor, Bright Hope Baptist Church.  “And like Esther in the Bible, I believe that God has sent her to Philadelphia for such a time as this.”    

These words, and this award, ten months ago today.

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District Refuses to Own Up to $630 Million Deficit

In a recent Inquirer commentary, CFO Michael Masch cherry-picks financial data to blame the District’s $630 million deficit on a lack of funding.   

by Christopher Paslay

On June 6th, concerned about the Philadelphia School District’s $630 million budget deficit, I published a commentary in the Inquirer headlined, “District spent its way into massive shortfall.”  In it I commented that the District had only itself to blame for its current financial mess—that officials spent freely on questionable initiatives, banking on temporary federal stimulus money as if it were permanent and ignoring their own five-year financial plan.

Coincidently, on the same morning that my commentary ran in the Inquirer, Phil Goldsmith, who served as interim CEO of the Philadelphia School District in 2000-01, wrote a piece in the Daily News headlined, “If it’s really about the kids, then we need some controls.”  Here, Goldsmith brought-up some of the same points I’d made about the District’s financial woes—that they stemmed more from mismanagement than from cuts in funding; Goldsmith took the argument a step further and called on city leaders (which he insisted had “misdiagnosed” the problem) to make the school budget more transparent and to hold District leaders accountable.

The articles by Goldsmith and myself did not fall on deaf ears.  On June 6th, the very morning our pieces ran, Bill Green, Philadelphia City Councilman-At-Large, wrote a letter to Mayor Michael Nutter asking him for more financial oversight and accountability from the Philadelphia School District.  In it Green wrote:

“The crisis at the School District is not over, but it is a crisis stemming more from a lack of meaningful oversight and good stewardship than from a lack of funding. I refer you to the excellent pieces in the Daily News and Inquirer today by Phil Goldsmith and Christopher Paslay, respectively, which define the issues and problem well. . . .”     

On June 28, Michael Masch, CFO of the Philadelphia School District, publically responded to the growing criticism over the handling of District finances in a commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer headlined, “Philly School District’s spending under control.”  In it he insisted the District’s budget shortfall is not the result of mismanagement, or bad bookkeeping, or reckless spending.  It is simply the result of a lack of funding.   

“The district’s problem is not spending,” Masch writes in the article.  “It is funding.”

With all due respect to Masch and his recent efforts to raise money and balance the budget, his claim that the District doesn’t have a spending problem is a clear case of denial; it is a total lack of accountability.  He blames the District shortfall on funding cuts, and writes that they are “unprecedented and disproportionate.” 

The concerning part, however, isn’t that he and the District are trying to shuck all responsibility for the $630 million budget deficit, a shortfall that has adversely affected nearly everyone in the city—taxpayers, teachers, parents, children, and unions, to name a few.  The alarming part is that the numbers Masch uses in his Inquirer commentary to explain away all responsibility for the budget shortfall are cherry-picked and taken out of context.

According to the District’s Third Quarter Financial Report, dated April 13, 2011, eight percent of the District’s funding for the 2010-11 school year was federal stimulus, which totaled $258 million.  In the 2009-10 school year, the District received $227 million in stimulus money.  Yet Masch writes in his article:

“State and federal funding for the district is going down next year—for the first time ever, and by an enormous amount—more than $400 million, a 15 percent drop. And this is not due solely or primarily to the district’s loss of federal stimulus funds. The district received an average of $113 million in annual stimulus funds in 2010 and in 2011, but it is losing more than $400 million in total funding next year.”

It appears Masch is getting the number $113 million from “Directly Allocated Federal Stimulus Funds.”  What he fails to mention, however, is that in the school years 2009-10 and 2010-11, the District also received “State Allocated Federal Stimulus Funds,” which brought in an additional $130 million per year.   

Masch also writes in his piece, “The district’s annual operating budget spending grew by just 4 percent in the past three years.”    

He is again playing with words.  Although the District’s “Operating Funds,” which only include “Local Taxes,” “City Grant,” ‘Local Non-Taxes” and “State Funds,” may have only increased 4 percent in three years, the District’s total budget grew from $2.79 billion in 2008-09 to $3.12 billion in 2010-11.  I’m no accountant or mathematician, but 4 percent of $2.79 billion is $111 million.  And from 2008 to 2011, District spending increased over $300 million; interestingly, the student population in the District went down 7,000 students during this time.         

I’m not the only one who finds Masch’s representation of data a bit troublesome.  The City Controller’s Office has also expressed serious concerns about how the School District handles tax dollars, and has recommended that they be required to present a five-year financial plan to an independent accounting authority because of “material weaknesses” found in its financial statements.

If the entire city of Philadelphia is being asked to make sacrifices to help balance the School District budget, if kindergarten and transportation are going to be cut, if unions are going to make $75 million in concessions, if property taxes are going to go up nearly $100 a year and 1,200 schoolteachers are going to lose their jobs, than there must be some real accountability. 

How can Mayor Nutter and the SRC ask so many people to give so much money to District officials who take no responsibility and who spin their financial information?        

This is a question that state and local leaders must start asking themselves.

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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.

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