Phil Goldsmith for Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools


by Christopher Paslay

The Philadelphia School District can call off its elaborate search for the next superintendent.  The best person for the job is sitting right under our nose, and his name is Phil Goldsmith.      

The Philadelphia School District has officially started its search for a new superintendent, and the token ritual of “making public voices heard” has begun.  For the next three weeks, at various locations around the city, citizens have the opportunity to tell the School Reform Commission the leadership characteristics they feel the next superintendent of city schools should possess.  These public forums are being sponsored by the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, in partnership with the Penn Project for Civic Engagement.  The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has also invited its members to take a superintendent search survey on the PFT website.     

This gesture—giving teachers and taxpayers a voice in the selection process—is kind, but for all intents and purposes, worthless.  The general population has as much say in hiring a superintendent as school children do in designing curriculum; allowing citizens a so-called “voice” is a public relations tactic to make a very undemocratic process appear democratic.   

But I’m not writing this to advocate democracy or transparency.  I’m writing to tell everyone—the District, the city, the PFT—to save it.  Save the elaborate search process for a time when it is warranted.  The next superintendent of the Philadelphia School District is sitting right under our noses, and his name is Phil Goldsmith.

For the record, I don’t know if Goldsmith has even considered applying for the job, but he should.  He’s by far the best fit for the position, and I have yet to hear of another person who can come close to matching Goldsmith’s vision, knowledge, and expertise when it comes to the city of Philadelphia and it public schools.  Here’s why:             

He’s a local with experience

Goldsmith was the interim CEO of the Philadelphia School District in 2001, and is a former managing director of the city.  In essence, Goldsmith already knows the inner workings of the District and city, so there would be no need to waste time or money on getting him “oriented” or established, of setting up costly “transition teams,” of getting acquainted with the teachers union or other local politicians.  Likewise, taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay to have him relocated as would be the case if the District hired an outsider. 

He’s a leader with values

As Goldsmith wrote in a commentary for the Notebook about school district leadership, “What really matters is the quality, expertise, character, and courage of the people who serve. They need expertise in overseeing a vast governmental organization, the willingness and smarts to ask tough questions, the courage to speak truth to power, and a deep commitment to the mission of public education.”  Goldsmith also stated that there are four primary functions of a body governing a school district: Fiscal stewardship, leadership, integrity, and fairness. 

Goldsmith also advocates local control—that the state should relinquish power of the District—and believes that citizens and taxpayers should have a stronger say in the workings of their schools. 

He has common sense with dollars and cents

Goldsmith wrote about the Philadelphia School District’s impending financial crisis months before it became reality.  In a July 2010 Daily News article, Goldsmith criticized superintendent Arlene Ackerman for bringing in high-priced administrators in light of the “fiscal tsunami” looming ahead for the District:

“The federal stimulus money the district has been relying on for operations will soon disappear, tax revenues remain weak, the state’s educational budget is smaller than anticipated, and Gov. Rendell, who has been generous to the school district and education in general, will be leaving office in five months.  And yet, administrative salaries at the district, which have gone up since the state takeover in 2002, continue to rise under Ackerman. . . .”  

In a Daily News column in June of 2011, when the extent and magnitude of the Philadelphia School District’s deficit became public, Goldsmith detailed how the oversight of District finances should become a priority:

“. . . whatever taxes are raised should not go directly to the district. The money should go into a dedicated education fund that the city can allocate to the district once it meets certain criteria and answers specific questions and a legitimate oversight process is ensured.  Should the district be expanding programs like Renaissance Schools before there is credible evidence that those schools are producing the desired results?  How is money being spent, department-by-department? What are the staffing levels compared with comparable school districts? And salary levels, for that matter?”

He understands the complexities of school safety

When it comes to school violence, Goldsmith can think outside the box:

“Schools don’t manufacture guns or produce and sell drugs,” Goldsmith wrote in an article for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, “they don’t make violent movies or television shows, write misogynist or violent lyrics to rap music or create single-parent homes with high unemployment. And yet, we expect our teachers, principals and administrators to right the wrongs of society. It simply isn’t going to happen.  There are many things a school district can and must do to fight violence: It needs to maintain accurate records, report incidents to the appropriate people and provide a safe learning and teaching environment. But by focusing solely on the school district, we absolve others of responsibility: Parents who aren’t providing—or aren’t capable of providing—proper parenting; faith-based leaders who may have to do more to step into the parental and spiritual breach; corporate leaders who, with advertising dollars, support some of the violent programs on television; politicians who reach for quick sound bites rather than explore substantive solutions.”

Does the district want a solution?      

Unlike Arlene Ackerman, Phil Goldsmith is not a mindless yes-man who can be manipulated by money and politics.  He’s a free thinker whose ideas sometimes run counter to education trends and what has come to be known as the “national reform model”.   This could very well pose a problem for those in charge.  The recent overhaul of the District’s leadership, along with the signing of the Gate’s Compact, suggests Philadelphia’ power structure is more interested in dismantling the Philadelphia public school system rather than trying to fix it from within.  It has become clear that the goal of the District is expedited privatization, and the dividing-up of all the resources that go along with it.

But while there’s still a public school system left to run, Goldsmith is the man to do it.  Here’s to hoping he’ll officially apply for the job, and that if he does, the District will have enough wisdom to take him on.

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.