School Safety & The Bottom Line

BUDGET CRUNCH MEANS HARD LOOK AT PROVIDERS IS ESSENTIAL

Posted: September 19, 2007

THE SCHOOL DISTRICT gravy train for contractors and vendors may not have come to a complete stop, but it appears the engine is getting a good going-over.

For example, Community Education Partners, which runs disciplinary schools, is being publicly challenged. In short: Are they being overpaid for services they provide?

Having to dig out of a nearly $200 million deficit, and an infusion of new district leaders while a search for a new chief executive is under way, can change the status quo. A change in culture is greatly welcome, but it must be accompanied by greater accountability by the vendors and thoughtfulness by district decision-makers.

That appears to be happening with at least one of the five private companies that provide alternative-education schools.

An $8 million cut in state grant money (down to $14 million) provided to the district for the schools have left Community Education Partners (CEP) and the three smaller firms vulnerable to more than usual scrutiny as the district and parents seek to curb costs.

There is a need for these schools. The removal of violent students from the classroom and regular school environment may mean that the 99 percent who remain can be left to learn without these kinds of distractions. The alternative-education schools handle a special class of student who often come from extraordinary circumstances. The students require greater specialized attention so they can be put back on track. Last year, about 3,200 students attended the schools; about $40 million in grant and district money was spent on the program last year.

In light of the school-district's budget crisis, CEP, the largest provider, says the company is talking with the district about changes or new ways to work with the district.

But also taking a close look is a parental advisory group, which (along with district representatives) is looking at alternative schools as a whole and offering some suggestions, including:

_ Whether the groups should be paid based on enrollment, not capacity.

_ Whether CEP rates should be lowered to match those of its competitors.

_ Whether a way should be created to track provider performance.

Perhaps one of the more remarkable things is the conscious inclusion of parents in the discussions. New chief academic officer Cassandra Jones has been working with the group.

CEP says it is working to look at changes and possible ways to make its program more streamlined in light of the budget restrictions.

Alternative-education providers came to Philadelphia in the late '90s under Superintendent David Hornbeck. He found a supporter in state Rep. John Perzel. However Perzel's loss of the House leadership might have hurt the funding, allowing some to now question the schools' effectiveness.

Last week, Jack Stollsteimer, the district's safe- schools advocate, urged the School Reform Commission to find some way not to cut the budget for the alternative schools because it would endanger students and staff. Meanwhile, several areas need to be examined:

_ What capacity and latitude does the district have? Why do some charge more than others, and why do services also vary.

_ What's the right way to pay for services? Per student or by the provider's capacity. What costs can be eliminate or modified? And are there some services the district can retake in the short run?

Answering questions like these are important for the bottom line and for ensuring the safety of the children and the district. *

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