SRC’s Ramos: Stabilizing finances is crucial

Posted: November 14, 2011

HARRISBURG - Newly confirmed to the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, Chairman Pedro Ramos said he would focus on reestablishing the "robust oversight role" state law intended the panel to have.

A key part of that oversight is stabilizing the Philadelphia School District's shaky finances, Ramos said in an interview. The state Senate confirmed Gov. Corbett's nomination of Ramos on Monday.

"From the outside, it looks like the strategy is to defer, to pray that the economy improves, and to borrow," he said of the district's finances. "We pushed forward many expenses into future years without a way to pay for them."

Officials recently announced a $39 million budget gap that will likely require further cuts to school budgets and some layoffs. That's after the district shed thousands of employees and made millions of dollars in cuts in June to bridge a $629 million shortfall.

But this isn't a one-year problem. Fiscal 2013 isn't far away on the horizon, and its outlook is no better. The district has a "structural deficit" that must be addressed, said Ramos, a former school board president, city solicitor and managing director.

"It's important that the SRC members and the public understand what we're dealing with," he said. "I worry that these numbers don't seem real anymore."

The district is not alone, Ramos pointed out. Government agencies across the country are in similar binds, but the time has come for the district to address its predicament, Ramos said.

Ramos, who is scheduled to attend his first SRC meeting Wednesday, said he also wants to look at issues of governance, likely bringing a committee structure to the SRC.

"We don't need 10 committees, but we need some functioning committee structure," Ramos said. "There should be meetings that lead up to these SRC meetings. At times, it looks like the SRC's trying to drink water through a fire hose."

Ramos said operating transparently and engaging a public wary of the district and the SRC would be priorities. A bitter battle over leadership under former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman and a city ethics probe into backroom deals orchestrated by former SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. have damaged the SRC's credibility.

Ramos alluded to the chaos in his hearing, referring to "unnecessary drama" that clouded important work going on in the district.

He also indicated that district structures might require shaking up.

"Our school district is organized the way it was 50 years ago," he said in the interview.

The Ramos-led SRC faces a series of challenges, from finances to adopting a facilities master plan that will close some schools and reconfigure others. The SRC must also guide the district through a search for a permanent superintendent.

Though it was a long time coming - Ramos was nominated in June - the actual confirmation process was swift. Ramos, a city resident with a child in public school, made a statement and then took a few questions in a 12-minute hearing before the Senate Education Committee.

Ramos noted that his father had only a second-grade education, and that his mother was a straight-A student until she had to leave school in sixth grade to help her family. He went to public school in Philadelphia, then graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan Law School.

"It is an American experience that has instilled in me a sense of duty and obligation - to the public and to my parents - that I try to fulfill however I can," Ramos told the education committee.

The district, Ramos said, is at a "critical juncture in which informed and active leadership is needed."

The leadership of the education committee said Ramos was the right person for a tough job.

"I think Mr. Ramos is the key person now," said State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester), minority chair of the committee. "We need someone that's going to be the keystone - the link - and that's been [Ramos'] history in the city of Philadelphia."

The confirmation put four members on the five-seat SRC. Ramos joins Wendell Pritchett, Lorene Cary, and Joseph Dworetzky.

A fifth seat is to be taken by Feather O. Houstoun, another gubernatorial nominee. Officials had hoped Ramos and Houstoun might be confirmed together; it wasn't clear Monday what is holding up Houstoun's nomination. A hearing on Houstoun's nomination has not yet been scheduled.


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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