Strings attached to Phila. school grant rankle many

Posted: September 03, 2013

When it comes to educating Philadelphia's public school children, what constitutes "reform" of the system?

Opinions vary, but the ones that matter right now reside in Gov. Corbett's administration.

That's because Corbett won't release a $45 million grant the School District of Philadelphia needs until his education secretary decides reforms have begun to make the schools better and more fiscally sound.

The Corbett administration attached a nearly identical restriction to the $120 million the district could collect annually, starting in 2014, from a one-cent increase in the sales tax in Philadelphia.

The reform language was added to those two pots of money during the last-minute budget chaos in Harrisburg at the end of June, as state and local leaders tried to find the money to fill the $304 million hole in the district's finances.

To close the gap, the district also is counting on a big contribution from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which is being asked in contract negotiations to accept pay and benefits cuts and to give up seniority rights.

Corbett's budget secretary, Charles Zogby, said last week, "It's understood the PFT agreement is the key piece" in releasing the $45 million, but he wouldn't say what concessions would be considered sufficient reform.

"I don't think anyone should assume that just any agreement is going to unlock those dollars," Zogby said. "Investing this money is one thing, but there has to be a belief in what we're buying."

As for the $120 million, he said the reform language was included because "one could envision a scenario of one year and then it all goes away."

But city political leaders, parent groups, and others have balked at having such strings attached; some have referred to the state as holding the city's schoolchildren "hostage" to extract union concessions.

The provision for an annual approval of the $120 million was little noted at the time, but City Council members, who are being asked to sign off on the sales-tax deal as written, have taken notice in recent weeks.

"We're being pressured to agree to this? We're looking at each other like, 'This is ridiculous,' " Councilman Mark Squilla said.

He noted that the annual decision to give the schools the money would lie with the state education secretary - and Corbett's appointee to that post resigned abruptly last week, followed by the acting secretary's drawing fire for failing to report outside income.

"They keep leaving or having troubles," Squilla said. "Why would we give this person that authority?"

Mayor Nutter said he doesn't like the deal Corbett put together but believes rejecting it outright is "a recipe for instant defeat," said Mark McDonald, his spokesman.

"The issue is really, 'Let's first pass the bill and access the money and then we can talk about next steps,' " he said. "In the fall, on new political terrain, then you can go get what you need [in Harrisburg]."

The reform language, contained in the state's fiscal code, also divided Philadelphia's state House and Senate delegations - the city's senators, all Democrats, voted to approve the code, while every Democratic member of the House voted no. (State Rep. John Taylor, the lone Republican in the city's House delegation, voted yes.)

"I made it clear to the administration that the Philadelphia delegation would not support any strings attached," said State Rep. Cherelle L. Parker, chairwoman of the House delegation. "It's not a coincidence there was not one vote from the Philadelphia delegation on this."

State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a likely mayoral candidate in 2015, said: "Those of us who were concerned about schools opening in September supported it simply because we needed the revenue."

Nonetheless, he said he had a meeting with Zogby and other top Corbett officials before the deal was made, and they let him know the $45 million would not be contingent on the teachers' accepting concessions.

"It would be the first time in the commonwealth that has ever happened," Williams said. "I don't know how you attach budgetary appropriations to contract negotiations."

He called the state's subsequent holding of the money "outrageous" and "a personal insult."

Zogby, however, said that was always the deal.

"It was always clear the state money would be the last money in," Zogby countered. "We're not just going to put blind money in. . . . I don't know how we can be more clear."

Though some have criticized the state for not defining "reform," Zogby said the language was left vague to allow room for the district and the teachers to negotiate.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership - an alliance of businesses, charities, and educators that raises money to spur improvement in city schools - outlined a number of changes he thinks the district should make. Gleason's list was similar to that of School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

"I think the governor is responding to what Hite said was important," Gleason said. "They're saying, 'OK, get those and we'll give you the money.' "

Those reforms include a longer work day for teachers; assigning teachers based on "mutual consent" with principals on which schools are the best fit; and evaluating and paying teachers based on performance or willingness to work in challenging schools and taking on extra duties.

Gleason also said the district needed to recruit and hire new teachers earlier in the year and develop better strategies for retaining them.

But Rebecca Poyourow, mother of two elementary school students who is a member of the advocacy group Parents United for Public Education, called the state's tactics appalling, and said she didn't know how pay cuts and other concessions amounted to reform.

"I don't see how that would make my children's education improve, to have an underpaid, de-professionalized . . . workforce," she said. "Who would want to work in a district where they're treated like mud?"


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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