Will Pensions Sink the Philadelphia School District?

by Christopher Paslay

Retirement costs in Philadelphia will increase fivefold in the next seven years, growing from $73 million in 2011 to $349 million by 2020. 

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza,


There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, 


There’s a hole.

These lyrics, from a traditional children’s folk song that I first heard as a child on Sesame Street, played through my head this week as I thought about the crisis facing the Philadelphia School District.

We have a hole.  A giant hole.  Not just in terms of cash, but also in terms of resources, staff, and services.  Earlier this year, the District laid-off nearly 3,800 workers.  As reported by the Notebook in June:

The 3,783 figure includes 676 teachers, 307 secretaries, 283 counselors, 127 assistant principals, 1,202 noontime aides, and 769 supportive services assistants, in addition to smaller numbers of workers in other categories. . . . The School Reform Commission adopted a “doomsday” budget . . . that provides a principal and a core group of classroom teachers for each school and nothing else. It has already said it will lay off all counselors, librarians, art and music teachers, secretaries, and support personnel, including noontime aides, in the schools.

Although about a third of the staff was rehired at the end of August, the fact that the District could do so little with so much money is concerning.

Consider these facts: The Philadelphia School District’s budget for the 2008-09 school year was approximately $2.7 billion.  The current budget for the 2013-14 school year is approximately $2.7 billion, although the district may still fall short $100 million plus, depending on the outcome of the negotiations between the School Reform Commission and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The question here is how was the District able to run at full strength with $2.7 billion just four short years ago, and be in such dire straights now?

The answer may very well rest with retirement costs, which continue to go up at an alarming rate.  According to the Pennsylvania Independent:

Payments to retired teachers and public employees are a growing threat to government budgets everywhere, and it is no different in Philadelphia. A new report from the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative education nonprofit, estimates the district’s total retirement costs will balloon from $73 million in 2011 to $349 million by 2020.

On a per-pupil basis, that works out to $900 per pupil in the district for 2011, growing to $2,300 per pupil by 2020.

Robert Costrell, a professor of economics at the University of Arkansas and an author of the report, says that trend is unsustainable.

“We’ve only just begun to see how bad it is going to be,” Costrell said Thursday.

The report examines the pension costs of the Philadelphia School District. Costrell said the financial mess unfolding in Pennsylvania’s largest city is on par with what has been seen recently in Detroit and Chicago. . . .

Because pension costs for public school employees are split between the local and state level in Pennsylvania, the situation in Philadelphia is partially a symptom of the $30 billion unfunded liability in the state’s Public School Employees Retirement System, or PSERS.

Because of that split, the state now picks up about $450 of that $900-per-pupil price tag, but as the costs rise, it will hurt both the district’s and the state’s bottom line.

And when the district spends about $15,000 per pupil — but will soon have to spend $2,000 per pupil on payments to retired district workers — that means fewer dollars are available to cover the actual costs of education.

Lawmakers in Harrisburg must solve the crisis because the state runs the pension system. Little progress has been made toward that goal.

Changes to the pension system approved in 2010 affected only future hires, which does little to affect the pension obligations in the short-term, the report notes.

Since most of the cost growth in the next decade is due to deferred payments of benefits owed to current workers or those who are already retired, changing benefit structure for new employees has little effect, Costrell said.

This news is indeed troubling.  As education advocates continue to fight for more funding for city schools—at both the state and local levels—the looming crisis involving pension funding hangs above it all.  State funds allocated by Gov. Corbett already make-up 50 percent of the Philadelphia School District’s budget—about $1.3 billion annually—and as pension obligations increase, this may very well cut into money earmarked for education.

Something has got to give, and sacrifices will need to be made.  Educators undoubtedly want the best for their students.  At the same time, after contributing 7.5  – 10.3 percent of every check to PSERS (Public School Employees Retirement System), they don’t want to see their pension funds go up in smoke.

Which leads to the following question: Will pension reform take place before the District goes bust?

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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.

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.

The mighty testing juggernaut

“There’s an old saying that weighing a cow doesn’t make it fatter. When it comes to educational testing in Pennsylvania, however, Gov. Corbett may beg to differ. His proposed 2012-13 budget calls for a 43 percent increase in funding for educational assessments, to $52 million, even as it keeps school funding generally flat and cuts spending on state-related universities.

The timing of this increase is interesting. Last year, a forensic audit of the 2009 state exams flagged 38 school districts and 10 charter schools for possible cheating; nearly half of them are still under investigation. This prompted state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis to order audits of the 2010 and 2011 tests and to require the Philadelphia School District, which had 28 schools flagged for suspicious results, to conduct an internal investigation. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “The mighty testing juggernaut.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

As Pennsylvania Schools Scrambled for Cash, Tom Corbett Gave Jerry Sandusky’s Foundation $3 Million

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Christopher Paslay

Last July, as PA’s education budget was getting slashed by over $1 billion, Tom Corbett personally approved a $3 million state grant to Jerry Sandusky’s Second Mile Foundation.

When you hear the names Tom and Jerry, most people think of a cartoon cat and mouse—not a gray-haired Republican governor who cut education spending in Pennsylvania by over $1 billion, and a retired football coach who is charged with 40 criminal counts of child sex abuse. 

According to Brad Bumsted’s story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “Gov. Tom Corbett on Wednesday defended personally approving a $3 million state grant to The Second Mile Foundation, which prosecutors contend provided sexual assault victims for its founder, former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.”

“The Second Mile had good purposes,” Corbett said. “I’d like to see it go forward. I don’t know whether it will be able to continue to go forward, and I hope there is a successor to the organization.”

Corbett has since given directions to pull back the $3 million grant. 

The Second Mile may have had good purposes, but Corbett’s timing is suspect.  He approved the $3 million state grant in July, despite the fact that at the time, Sandusky, the founder of Second Mile, was being investigated for child sex crimes. 

Corbett insists otherwise.  According to the article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “Corbett said that denying the grant would have posed the potential to ‘compromise the investigation.’”  But Corbett’s explanation for approving the grant still doesn’t pass the smell test, considering the fact that he was the one who began the investigation as attorney general before becoming governor, and should have blocked the Second Mile grant long before July. 

State Rep. Tony DeLuca (D-Penn Hills) said that Corbett’s explanation “doesn’t make sense to me,” because of the fact that Corbett had known about the investigation for so long.

Corbett’s approval of the Second Mile grant is indeed debatable.  Not just because he was putting money into a foundation started by a possible pedophile, but because he was cutting funding to hundreds of needy public school districts across the state while doing so.

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.

A Letter to PA Governor Tom Corbett

Dear Governor Corbett,

 

I am writing this letter on behalf of all the hard working Philadelphia public school teachers who will be losing their jobs next school year because of your proposed cuts to education (yes, I know the general public thinks schoolteachers are greedy bums protected by villainous unions, but the reality is, most schoolteachers work extremely hard and have to provide for their families).  I am also writing this letter on behalf of all the city’s schoolchildren, the 165,000 students who will be losing badly needed supports and programs because your proposed budget cuts will stop education funding mid-stream.          

 

Before you balk and give me a lecture on fiscal responsibility, just stop for a moment.  Breathe.  Count backwards from ten. 

 

I know how the game works, Mr. Governor.  I know all about politics.  Although I’m registered as an Independent, I feel your pain.  Obama and the Democrats were smart.  They got everybody hooked on that Federal Stimulus money like crack.  They made state politicians adopt liberal agendas and vote for progressive bills before getting rewarded with a boatload of federal green (green that the government didn’t even have in the first place).  It was a good plan.  Genius.  And everybody and their mother bought-in. 

 

The Philadelphia School District jumped right on board.  After all, former District C.E.O. Paul Vallas broke camp for New Orleans and left the Ackerman administration a “surprise” $73 million deficit.  Why wouldn’t the SRC grab hold of that Stimulus cash?  At the time, the District even had a long term budget plan for developing a surplus by the year 2011.  The plan was titled, “Five-Year Financial Plan: Fiscal Year 2008-2009 through Fiscal Year 2012-13” (click here if you want to read it).

 

In 2009, to Dr. Ackerman’s credit, the District balanced its books.  Of course, around this time, that Stimulus cash started to look mighty tasty.  In three short years, from 2009 to 2011, the District’s budget went up almost a half a billion dollars (this was in spite of their own fiscal plan which called for a budget in 2011 of $2,646,495,847 instead of the $3,216,000,000 they actually spent).      

 

Again, much of this overzealous spending was politics.  All part of the Democrats’ plan.  Get people hooked on free stuff so when it runs out, bang!  You find yourself in serious withdraw—to the tune of $629 million.  You also find yourself cursing the bastards who took half your free stuff away.  Example: those damn Republicans!

 

I feel your pain, Mr. Governor.  I really do.  I understand that “free stuff” really isn’t free, that money doesn’t grow on trees.  I understand that the well eventually runs dry, and that if we want to replenish it, we have to make cuts.  I also understand your politics, the games played by the Republicans.  We can’t waste too much money on public programs, because that will ultimately offset private wealth.  Taxes will have to be raised to make-up the difference, and we can’t have that.                  

 

So how about if we compromise, Mr. Governor?  You have to cut irresponsible spending, but don’t cut us off cold turkey.  Seriously.  Cutting $293 million from Philadelphia public schools is just too drastic, even if the SRC did overextend itself over the past three years.  We admit our mistakes, and the fact that we could have planned better, but dropping this kind of hammer on us is too harsh.  How about cutting our funding by $150 million instead?  Do half now and see where the budget stands next year. 

 

I know I’ve just talked a lot about politics, but for the record, your cuts are affecting children.  Do you truly understand how your decisions will be impacting our city’s youth?  Schools will be losing counselors, nurses, reading specialists, ESL teachers, special education teachers, police officers, art and music teachers, librarians, summer programs, and athletic programs.  Did you know this?  Do you even care?         

 

I know you need to appease your constituency by coming into office and reeling in “reckless” spending with a swift hand, but even you can exercise some moderation.  Don’t think of it as failing to corral the Democrats, but as investing in the future of Pennsylvania’s children.             

 

Sincerely,

 

Christopher Paslay      

 

Tragically, District Ignored It’s Own Five-Year Financial Plan

 

by Christopher Paslay

 Recently, I was perusing the Philadelphia School District’s website when I stumbled across an interesting budget document titled, “Five-Year Financial Plan: Fiscal Year 2008-2009 through Fiscal Year 2012-13.”  (Click here if you want to review the document yourself). 

Dated June 30th, 2008, the financial plan 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.  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 2011:

 

FY2008-09:  $2,794,000,000

FY2009-10:  $3,057,000,000

FY2010-11:  $3,216,000,000

 

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.    

 

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 a deficit of $629 million dollars, according to District projections. 

 

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 upcoming 2011-12 school year, there would be a more manageable deficit of $111 million dollars, based on the District’s most recent budget projection for the 2011-12 school year of $2,695,000,000.   

 

Interestingly, as District spending went up almost a half a billion dollars in the last three years, the student population has gone down.  In 2008, there were 169,742 students enrolled in District operated schools.  In 2010, there were only 162,662 enrolled in District schools.          

 

The question is, where did the money go?  In the 2010-11 school year, nearly $200 million went into Dr. Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 reform plan.  According to an official District News Release dated April 21, 2010, “The proposed FY2010-11 budget provides $180 million for the implementation of Imagine 2014 Phase Two initiatives, including $119 million for the continuation of initiatives implemented last year and $61 million for new or expanding initiatives.”  (To read the whole document, click here.)

 

Specifically, the money was spent on things like expanding summer programs, Renaissance Schools, Newcomer Learning Academies, Reengagement Centers, Student Success Centers, Regional Talent Centers, Parent Ombudsmen and Student Advisors, expansion of the Parent University, improved counseling services, reading supports, and reduced class sizes, among other things.

 

Tragically, the District was investing in an ever-growing reform plan with money it didn’t have.  In the 2010-2011 school year, $116 million of the District’s budget came from Direct Federal Stimulus Funding, and $193 million came from PA-Provided Stimulus Funding ($309 million total).  It was public knowledge that both of the sources of this funding were temporary, and that they would be gone at the end of the 2010-11 school year.  

    

So why did the District recklessly continue to expand its programs?  The District News Release dated April 21, 2010 might give a hint at the answer: “Imagine 2014 builds on the District’s past successes in increasing student achievement and provides the District with a road map to accelerate academic progress over the next five years.”     

 

But exactly what were the District’s past successes?  If you turn to standardized testing data for the answer, the overall progress was slim.  From 2008 to 2010, after the District increased its budget by nearly a half a billion dollars, PSSA math scores went up a total of 7.3 percent (from 49 percent proficient and advanced in 2008 to 56.3 percent in 2010), and PSSA reading scores went up 5.2 percent (from 44.8 percent proficient and advanced in 2008 to 50 percent in 2010). 

 

It seems there is too little to show for the District’s overzealous spending.  When Paul Vallas left Philadelphia for New Orleans in 2007, he left in his wake tangible improvements.  He started the process of breaking large, factory model schools into smaller, more manageable ones.  He upgraded building conditions and replaced books.  He also brought Philadelphia School District sports to a new level, making city schools an official member of the PIAA and building new football and track stadiums (he called them “super-sites”) at Simon Gratz, Northeast, and Roxborough, among other schools; Vallas also partnered with Microsoft in 2006 to bring the city its first “paperless” high school—the High School of the Future—in West Philadelphia. 

 

Other than the expansion of charter schools (which suck money from traditional neighborhood schools), and the creation of a dozen or so special district programs and help centers, there isn’t an overwhelming amount to show for Imagine 2014, at least nothing concrete that will still be standing once the Ackerman administration moves on; to their credit, the current administration did greatly improve the District website and the use of technology, and work out a fair contract with the Philadelphia teacher’s union.     

 

Nevertheless, it’s still time to pay the piper.  According to the latest District projections, an unlucky number of teachers, nurses, school police, and counselors will be losing their jobs in the 2011-12 school year.  Athletics might be cut, as well as summer programs, music and art classes.  (Were opening Regional Talent Centers and Parent Universities really worth cutting sports programs and laying-off teachers, nurses, and school police?)

 

Of course, the new PA governor is also to blame for the shortfall.  Tom Corbett has proposed cutting $293 million in education funds for the Philadelphia School District in 2011-12.  This decline in state education funding is unprecedented in Pennsylvania history.      

 

Still, $293 million isn’t even half of the projected $629 million budget deficit.  Over $300 million is the fault of the District, a gap in revenue that was waiting there like a hole in the road for all to see; everyone and their mother knew the stimulus money would run out in 2011. 

 

So how in the world did we get into this mess?  How could the District’s financial officers be so reckless with the budget?  It seems to me that the District was its own worst enemy.    

 

Maybe in the future, such mistakes can be avoided.  Maybe in the future, the SRC will heed its own advice and follow the financial plans they’ve carefully laid out for themselves.