Philadelphia schools had "bad fiscal policy," SRC chairman says

that the district's current spending . . . is unsustainable," Pedro Ramos said. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff
that the district's current spending . . . is unsustainable," Pedro Ramos said. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff ("It is no secret)
Posted: March 28, 2012

How did the Philadelphia School District get into its current financial bind, with $26 million left to cut by June and a gap of up to $400 million for next year?

"Bad fiscal policy," School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos told City Council Tuesday, the most pointed such admission he has made since joining the SRC last year.

In the past, the district borrowed a lot of money. And when it was flush with cash from the federal stimulus package and state coffers, it spent a lot, too, on salaries, benefits, and new programs it now cannot afford to keep going.

"It is no secret that the district's current spending level, even after cuts, is unsustainable," Ramos said in testimony to Council's education committee.

When Ramos joined the SRC last November, he viewed the budget situation as "a train wreck in progress." Officials had already cut more than $600 million through layoffs, program cuts, and union concessions. But the SRC has had to cut millions more, and it still faces the $26 million shortfall and a gap of likely at least $269 million for fiscal 2013.

The previous SRC, led by Robert L. Archie Jr., and the administration of Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman banked on the economy's recovering more quickly than it did, and there were "overly optimistic projections that despite everything that was being said in Harrisburg, reality would be hundreds of millions of dollars different," Ramos said.

Many of the projections did not have "good plans behind them," the chairman said.

In January, the SRC demoted two key district officials and brought in Thomas Knudsen as chief recovery officer, a hybrid superintendent-chief financial officer to cut costs and decentralize operations.

The SRC must firmly reestablish itself as running the district, Ramos said.

"I have been fascinated by the extent to which the culture in the district had considered the SRC a last stop on administrative processes rather than the starting point for forming policy and priorities," he said.

Ramos also said the district would refocus on safety.

"You can't engage in reading and math if you don't feel safe," Ramos said. "Loud and clear: The issue of safety has risen to the top as one of the public's biggest concerns."

Ramos said the district would emphasize proactive measures rather than its previous focus on reactive, punitive measures. A safety committee under Commissioner Lorene Cary has begun to address these issues.

A 2011 Inquirer investigation found widespread violence, inconsistent reporting, and a dearth of adequate services for victims and offenders in city schools. The subsequent report from a district commission echoed those findings, and recommended fixes the SRC has said it will adopt.

Issues including charter schools and services for English-language learners were also aired at the daylong Council hearing, which in addition dealt with school closings and the district's zero-tolerance policy of violence.

Charter schools were the subject of much discussion, with teachers' union president Jerry Jordan calling for an end to the district's Renaissance charter process, which gives away failing schools to outside providers.

Four new district schools - Creighton, Edmunds, Cleveland and Jones - are scheduled to be turned into charter schools in September. Speakers from Creighton asked Council to use their influence to stop that school's conversion.

Jordan said the district was motivated by politics, not what is best for students. He said some charter-school providers were trying to create their own school systems using public money.

"The Renaissance Charter program isn't about improving achievement," Jordan said. "It's about divvying up schools, fragmenting and privatizing public education and, in the end, creating an even less equitable public school system."

Jordan said that all four schools slated to become charter schools had shown growth and that other district schools were in worse shape.

Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, the education committee chair, called Jordan's testimony "extremely important, extremely explosive," and said she would ask for answers from the SRC, which is scheduled to vote on Renaissance schools next month.

But others sounded a very different note.

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's education secretary and an executive adviser to the SRC, said that the city and the district must think not about charters vs. district schools but high-performing vs. low-performing schools.

Last year, city, state and district officials signed the Great Schools Compact, a document that vows to close seats in low-performing schools and expand opportunities in good schools, whether district or charter.

Mark Gleason, a member of the steering committee and executive director of the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, said the compact would help bring equity.

"Not all children have the same chance for a great education, and that's what must change if Philadelphia is to prosper in the coming decades," Gleason said.

Still, there was some indication that not all charter schools were speaking with one voice.

Veronica Joyner, founder of the Math, Civics and Sciences Charter School, said the compact committee was a "clique" and signaled she believed Renaissance charter schools were no different from district schools.

Another charter-school operator, Walter Palmer, cast aspersions on the Renaissance initiative, through which he said "corporations" seek to make money from poor schools.


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

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