What Happened to the Philadelphia School District’s 2008 Five-Year Financial Plan?

by Christopher Paslay

Tom Knudsen, the District’s new Chief Recovery Officer, is searching for consultants to help the District develop a five-year financial plan to balance the budget.  Tragically, this would not be necessary if the District simply followed its 2008 five-year plan.

I’m going to let Tom Knudsen and the Philadelphia School Reform Commission in on a little secret: five-year financial plans only work if you follow them.  This nugget of wisdom is similar to the “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry goes to pick up his rental car and finds there are none available.  The rental agent acknowledges that Jerry indeed has a reservation, but that he can’t get a car because the agency didn’t hold one for him. 

“Anyone can take a reservation,” Jerry says, “but it’s the holding of the reservation that counts.”

The same philosophy applies to the District: anyone can write a five-year financial plan; it’s following the plan that counts.   

A case in point is the District’s other five-year financial plan, the one Dr. Ackerman and the SRC released on June 30, 2008.  Titled, “Five-Year Financial Plan: Fiscal Year 2008-2009 through Fiscal Year 2012-13,” it was put in place to help close the $73 million “surprise” budget deficit left by Paul Vallas, former C.E.O. of Philadelphia public schools (click here to read the document).  The plan went on to make several ambitious promises in its executive summary:

“In future years, District finances are projected to continue steady improvement based on strong continued state funding levels, combined with tight fiscal restraint for District spending. Accordingly, the first year of this Plan is critical for establishing sustainable fiscal health.

A Gap Closing Plan is in development to achieve full and sustainable balance for the fiscal year ahead. The SRC Chair has requested that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Secretary of the Budget and City of Philadelphia Director of Finance work with the District to construct this approach, and the process has begun. Assuming that at least half of the initiatives in this Gap Closing Plan recur, the District is projected to produce operating surpluses in FY2010-11 and FY2011-12 and to begin to rebuild a positive Fund Balance reserve.”    

Here are the yearly budget projections quoted in the Five Year Financial Plan (p. 14 of the document):

FY2008-09:  $2,280,602,991

FY2009-10:  $2,483,103,289

FY2010-11:  $2,646,495,847 

FY2011-12:  $2,806,419,243

FY2012-13:  $3,025,631,379

To the credit of the newly appointed Dr. Ackerman and the SRC, the District did manage to successfully balance the books in 2008-09.  Shortly thereafter, however, the District’s philosophy of efficient spending went out the window.  This was undoubtedly due to the fact that a gigantic pot of Federal Stimulus money landed at their doorstep.  Here are the District’s actual budgets from 2009 to 2012:

FY2008-09:  $2,794,000,000

FY2009-10:  $3,057,000,000

FY2010-11:  $3,216,000,000

FY2011-12:  $2,770,000,000

The District’s spending not only went up nearly a half a billion dollars in three years ($422 million), but their 2010-11 costs were 570 million dollars over their original budget projections in their financial plan issued in June of 2008.    

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, the irony of the situation is two-fold.  One—the District somehow forgot to exercise “tight fiscal restraint.”  And two—there is no operating surplus for the year 2011-12.  In fact, there is now a deficit of over $700 million dollars. 

Most ironic, however, is the fact that if the SRC would have simply followed their own Five Year Financial Plan, which estimated a budget of only $2,806,419,243 for the 2011-12 school year, there would be a more manageable deficit of $36 million dollars, based on the District’s 2011-12 school year budget of $2,770,000,000.

So a word to the wise: if the District is going to spend a bunch of money hiring a consultant to write a five-year financial plan, it must make sure it follows it.  Writing a financial plan and not following it is like giving out a reservation for an automobile but not holding the car.

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The Notebook responds to Chalk and Talk article

 

 

 

by Christopher Paslay

 

On March 3rd, I posted an article here on Chalk and Talk headlined Do Phila. teachers really view minority children as criminals?  In the article I criticized the Philadelphia Public School Notebook for running an objectionable editorial (Changing the odds) that suggested Philadelphia public school teachers were racist and afraid of the communities they serve.

 

Two days later I received an email from Paul Socolar, editor of the Notebook, requesting that we open a dialogue in order to address some of the issues I had with his newspaper.  Paul also asked me to reread my March 3rd article, and to pay careful attention to its tone, which Paul felt had degenerated into name calling; he took particular offense to the fact that I called the Notebook “irresponsible”. 

 

I reread the post, and although I didn’t feel I had called anyone names, I did agree that it had an edge to it.  I explained that this was a reaction to the accusations contained in the Notebook’s Winter 2008 edition, Focus on Changing the Odds, where the newspaper more than once alluded to the fact that teachers were racist. 

 

Paul admitted that I wasn’t the only teacher who felt this way.  However, he suggested that I focus on the actual points of disagreement, rather than throwing around so many labels.  In order for both of us to tone down our rhetoric, he wanted to know what other editions of the Notebook may have offended me. 

 

As I went through the Notebook’s archives, I realized that these articles were not so much offensive to teachers as they were unfriendly.  Here were the gripes I had:            

 

Lack of Parental Involvement:  The Notebook fails to scrutinize parents and explore all the ways mothers and fathers are failing their children.  They suggest parental involvement is low because schools aren’t “welcoming”; teachers are “intimidating”; announcements aren’t made early and often enough; literature isn’t translated into other languages; etc.     

 

The achievement gap: The Notebook fails to explore the societal root of the problem, and refuses to acknowledge that many black children are plagued by serious social ills.  They place much of the blame on racist teachers.    

 

Safety issues:  The Notebook fails to admit Philadelphia neighborhoods are sometimes dangerous and that violent crime exists.  They chastise teachers for not wanting to teach in the poorest schools because they harbor unfounded prejudices and are “afraid of the communities they serve”.  

 

Inappropriate student behavior: The Notebook fails to acknowledge the violent and unruly actions of too many children (many of them minorities).  They often explain these behaviors away and blame them on the teacher’s unconscious racial prejudice or the counselor’s wrongful diagnosis. 

 

English language learners:  The Notebook fails to recommend ways immigrant families can shoulder some of the language burden.  Instead, they call under-resourced and overwhelmed schools and teachers “unwelcoming” and demand better services.

 

The Voice of Teachers:  The Notebook rarely incorporates into their articles publications that represent the voice of classroom teachers.  Instead, they consistently quote studies and statistics from civil rights organizations that tend to paint schools and teachers in an unflattering light.    

 

Philadelphia Student Union: The Notebook fails to emphasize the fact that the Philadelphia Student Union must strive to hold its peers accountable for contributing to the chaotic nature of schools.  Instead, they consistently harp on the fact that parents and students “feel disrespected by teachers”.           

 

Writers and Bloggers:  The Notebook does not have a single writer or blogger that is a current Philadelphia public school teacher.

 

After reading my concerns, Paul admitted that teachers do need a stronger voice in his newspaper, and he insisted that he is working on this situation.  He also explained that the Notebook’s mission is to make schools better, and that their focus isn’t necessarily on the other parts of the education equation—parents, communities, or the students themselves; Paul did admit however that the problems schools face cannot be solved in isolation.

 

In addition, Paul stated that he wouldn’t mind having a public discussion on the Notebook’s blog about most of the issues I listed above.  I may take him up on this offer.  For now, I’m posting these concerns here on Chalk and Talk, and I’m asking people on all sides of the argument for constructive feedback. 

 

One final note: I’d like to thank Paul Socolar for engaging in our email dialogue, and for taking my concerns to heart.  And I’d also like to reiterate my pledge to watch the tone of my posts, as long as the Notebook strives to be more teacher-friendly.     

 

How About the Teachers?

by Christopher Paslay

Here is a reprint of a commentary I published in The Philadelphia Inquirer last Thursday, headlined, “How about the teachers?” To comment, please click on the link below.

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After six months of failed negotiations with the School Reform Commission, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is still without a contract. The Sept. 1 deadline has come and gone, and both sides remain at an impasse.

But can you really blame SRC members for the stalled talks? It has been a long year for them.

In March, they voted to hire Arlene Ackerman as the district’s new CEO, and I can only imagine that this was an extremely exhausting process.

First they had to work out Ackerman’s base pay – which ended up being $325,000, the second-highest superintendent salary in the country.

Then they had the task of formulating Ackerman’s retention bonus, which is estimated to be $100,000.

Next the SRC had the matter of extending the contracts of the city’s education management organizations, the private consulting firms that charge the district millions of dollars to run some of the city’s public schools.

The decision to extend their contracts must have been daunting, given that studies show these private managers perform no better than Philadelphia’s traditional public-school officials.

Last year, Research for Action, a nonprofit organization working in educational research and reform, conducted a survey on the private managers.

The report stated: “We find little evidence in terms of academic outcomes that would support the additional resources for the private managers.”

In other words, education management organizations aren’t worth the money.

How did SRC members react to this? In June, they decided to extend the contracts of 32 of the 38 privately run schools.

And then there’s the issue of renewing the contracts of Philadelphia’s charter schools.

In April, the SRC approved a new five-year term of operation for 13 of Philadelphia’s 16 charter schools whose charters were due to expire at the end of the 2007-08 school year.

As with the private managers, statistics show charter-school managers perform no better than traditional school officials.

Research for Action also published a study evaluating the performance of Philadelphia’s charters.

The study concluded: “Students’ average gains when attending charter schools are statistically indistinguishable from the gains they experienced while at traditional public schools.”

And then there are the Philadelphia Academy and Northwood Academy charter schools, both now under federal criminal investigation for missing funds and illegal land deals.

How did SRC members respond to these findings? They had a meeting of the minds and decided to approve the opening of seven more charter schools by the fall of 2009.

The SRC has had quite a busy year. This probably explains why it hasn’t gotten around to ironing out that new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

I mean, why make time for the teachers? All we really do is educate the kids, right? Teach them how to read, write, communicate. Mold them into critical thinkers and productive members of society.

And where has Mayor Nutter been during contract talks? Did he take the PFT’s endorsement and run? What about “Putting Children First,” his plan for public education?

As a Philadelphia public school teacher, I remember his plan well. He was supposed to use his influence as mayor to reduce class sizes, improve safety inside schools, expand programs to retain quality teachers and principals, among other things.

Of course, when Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, put these very issues on the table during contract negotiations, the SRC balked.

Jordan wrote in a recent letter to union members that the SRC was “not willing to put into the contract any language that addresses these serious issues.”

In fact, the school district is moving in the opposite direction. According to Jordan’s letter, the SRC is now fighting for a one-year contract.

Failing charter schools and ineffective private managers get three- to five-year extensions, but the workhorse known as the Philadelphia public school teacher deserves only a one-year extension?

This is a slap in the face on so many levels.

The school district needs to get its priorities straight. It must show its teachers some respect and offer us a fair, multiyear contract.