Time to take a good look at schools' books

Posted: June 29, 2012

THE PUBLIC MIGHT stand for us spending more money if they were getting a return on their investment. But they're not. The School District of Philadelphia has a $218 million gap between revenue and expenses, and I'm having a hard time understanding where the money is going.

In the meantime, we're cheating our students out of the basics of education: music, art, sports, libraries, behavioral health and the best educators to teach our children. We're making excuses about why our students are underperforming. That is unacceptable.

A few months ago, the School Reform Commission and administrators from the school district came before City Council without a serious plan. When asked whether this new plan of closing schools, slashing jobs and reducing programs would help the district in the long run, the answer was basically: "We don't know." Well, I want to know. Therefore, I am introducing a resolution this week calling for the state auditor general to do a forensic audit of the school district.

The school system is already failing. The dropout rate in Philadelphia is 50 percent. Too few students are qualifying for college and we're on the brink of fiscal calamity. Yet every year we're asked at City Council to blindly approve a new budget for the school district. We simply cannot continue to let this happen. After all, the sure sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Education is a large part of the foundation on which our culture is built, and it should be the breeding ground for brilliance, optimism and new thinking. From a fiscal standpoint, we obviously haven't taken a common-sense perspective on what's wrong with the school district. Consequently, I'm asking for the SRC to open up the books.

As you already know, the administration and the School Reform Commission asked us to approve the Actual Value Initiative so that the school board could receive $94 million dollars. I voted no. Not only because assessments were not complete on the homes throughout the city, but also because I could not in good faith just give the school district a bunch of money without knowing exactly where the money is going.

And while I did vote for a slight increase in use and occupancy and property taxes, in order for the district to receive $40 million, I did so with reservation. We have to support our kids. However, I take raising taxes very seriously. I don't feel as if we're doing enough to hold the school district accountable.

Let's face it, we're in need of a radical makeover. While there are bright spots in the private-school system, the public-education system — where the vast majority of our children are being taught, guided, and motivated — is a dated, inefficient and bureaucratic system. It lost sight and understanding of its consumer a long time ago.

The history of reform efforts in Philadelphia public education is replete with half-hearted measures, with misdiagnoses of education problems, with blame-shifting. At any one time during the course of school reform, an illusion of debate often obscures a surprising consensus on the so-called "magic bullet" of the decade — be it school centralization, progressive education, preschool education or computerizing the classroom — that will solve Philadelphia's problems. Unfortunately, they always seem to misfire.

But instead of changing their approach, the school district foolishly believes that the newest fad will succeed despite the failures of its predecessors.

In 2010 and 2011, the school district paid an obscene $89.6 million to cancel nine interest-rate swaps to Wall Street banks.

"Swaps are financial instruments that form a contract between a school district and an investment bank, speculating on the direction interest rates will move, as well as other unpredictable factors," said Jack Wagner, the state auditor general, in his March 2011 performance audit report to the school district. "Swaps are complicated, risky financial instruments that can needlessly waste taxpayers funds if the District bets incorrectly on which way interest rates will move."

Now it's time to get a return on our investment. Now is the time to hold the school district and the SRC responsible. I'm tired of the excuses.Wouldn't it be sad to hire another superintendent, only to have the same results we have experienced for the last 20 years? Now that would be insane.

City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson represents the 2nd District. He is a product of the School District of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania.

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