Tag Archives: Thomas Knudsen

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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SRC Favors Corporate Community Over True Stakeholders

by Lisa Haver

Philadelphians still have little say in the workings of the School District.  Too often the agenda of the corporate community outweighs the interests of true stakeholders.      

Although the new-look Philadelphia School Reform Commission is making headway into the issues facing city schools, a number of their recent decisions have some Philadelphians wondering whether they are really living up to their self-described “transparency”. 

One troublesome development was the SRC’s signing of the Great Schools Compact at its November 23, 2011 meeting—held the day before Thanksgiving—after offering limited opportunity for public discussion on it.  The millions of dollars in possible grant money attached to the Compact, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, come with a number of mandatory provisions which seriously compromise the SRC’s ability to make its own decisions.  These include expansion of the number and size of charter schools, the evaluation and pay of teachers, the closing of neighborhood schools, and the transferring of 50,000 students over the next five years to “high-performing” schools. 

Recently, an eight-member committee was appointed by the SRC to coordinate implementation of the Great Schools Compact. This committee includes representatives from the Mayor’s office, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Philadelphia School District, and administrators from three charter schools.  No community members, teachers, parents or students are represented.

There has yet to be a chance for any of the true stakeholders of city public schools to weigh in on the Great Schools Compact, an agreement that will change the landscape of the Philadelphia School District for many years to come.  However, the Philadelphia School Partnership—a newly created organization whose board is top-heavy with investment bankers—has become a major player in advancing the cause of privatization as “reform,” and has managed to place Mark Gleason, PSP’s Executive Director, on the Great Schools Compact committee as a “non-voting” member; Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, is also a non-voting member.    

This Great Schools Compact Committee was not elected by the people and is not directly accountable to them.  One wonders how investment bankers and charter school operators have become such heavy hitters in deciding the future of city public schools.  How has the corporate community come to overshadow the district’s true stakeholders? 

Another issue with transparency was the recent restructuring of the School District’s administration.  At the January 16th SRC meeting, not once did any of the SRC members feel compelled to mention to those in attendance that the administration of the school district was about to be completely reconfigured.  That was announced three days later, along with the shocker that they had named Thomas Knudsen, former director of the Philadelphia Gas Works, the District’s new Chief Recovery Officer and interim superintendent with no set limits on his range of powers.     

Now taxpayers must cough up $25,000 a month to pay yet another businessman to oversee the district.  Now we find out that Mr. Knudsen plans to hire even more costly consultants to straighten-out the financial and administrative mess left by Arlene Ackerman.  Apparently, that’s his prerogative; we were never told what his prerogatives would be.

Unfortunately, it is hard to figure out how and when the public will ever have a chance to weigh in on any of these issues.  Previously, the SRC convened on Wednesdays; official proposals were distributed and discussed at one meeting and voted on the next.  The new SRC now has one formal meeting each month, and they have yet to explain how anyone can view its agenda prior to that day.  How can the public comment on or question proposals they don’t get a chance to see?

It seemed, initially, that one exercise in transparency might be the SRC’s decision to schedule a series of meetings at neighborhood schools where parents and community members could discuss their criteria for finding a permanent superintendent.  A 10-member committee has been designated by the SRC to conduct the search and vote for its choice; no parents, teachers or students have been selected to be part of that body, either. 

The first of these forums, held at Simon Gratz High School last week, was not run by School District personnel but by facilitators from the Penn Project on Civic Engagement.  The gathering of about one hundred people was immediately divided into smaller groups, and a printed list of talking points was given to each to discuss.  No time was allotted for the whole group to ask questions of the four committee members who were present.  Can a meeting with a pre-determined agenda, run by paid facilitators, truly be described as an opportunity for Philadelphians who have a stake in this system to be heard?

When will Philadelphians have a chance to be heard on the critical issues—academics, finances, school safety and climate—which now face our schools?  And why are they being pushed aside to make room for those who largely represent corporate interests?  It seems that the true stakeholders in the Philadelphia School District have neither the money nor the power to get a seat at the table.

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and education activist.  She can be reached at:  lhaver1039@yahoo.com.

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