Dispute over meaning of ‘reform’ stalls $45M in aid for Philly schools

    A $45 million pot of money destined for Philadelphia’s public schools right now is just sitting in Harrisburg.

    What’s the catch? The money won’t be delivered until the state secretary of education decides the school district has implemented a “reform” agenda.

    At a Tuesday morning news conference at City Hall, Philadelphia’s Harrisburg delegation joined Mayor Michael Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke in insisting those reforms have already been happening.

    Citing a letter sent to Gov. Tom Corbett, the group outlined nine cost-cutting actions the district has taken in the name of reform.

    They include labor concessions by the district’s building and service workers; savings from school closings;  energy-efficiency measures; and potential income through creation of a district-run online virtual school.

    The group said this list more than meets the language prescribed in Act 71 of the school code—which makes the $45 million contingent on the district having “begun implementation of reforms that provide for fiscal stability, educational improvement and operational control.”

    “The school district has done a yeoman’s job in trying to get its arms around its own fiscal house. In 18 months, 31 schools have closed. The conditions have been met. Release the money,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, Democratic appropriations chair.

    All about the teachers

    Reform, though, apparently is in the eye of the beholder.

    And to the Corbett administration, reform won’t be satisfactory until there’s a new teachers contract with concessions and reforms.

    At the same time the delegation was making its pitch to reporters, state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby issued an email saying that the $45 million won’t be released until the teachers union, or PFT, renegotiates its contract to the state’s liking.

    “A new collective bargaining agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that makes substantial progress toward achieving the fiscal savings and academic reforms set out by CEO [William] Hite and the School Reform Commission must be in place before any new funding is released,” Zogby said in his letter.

    “There’s nothing in the language [of Act 71] that said ‘PFT,'” state Sen. Anthony Williams said, adding that the state was setting a bad precedent by withholding school funding based on the results of one union’s collective bargaining agreement.

    “No governor, no mayor, no General Assembly has ever established that as a precedent,” Williams said.

    “Children don’t negotiate contracts and shouldn’t be held hostage,” added state Rep. Cherelle Parker.

    In an interview with the Public School Notebook, Zogby vehemently disagreed with Williams’ statement.

    “It was always clear that the state money would be the last money in,” Zogby told the Notebook.

    He also said that the steps being cited as sufficient reform by the Philadelphia Democrats had already been taken when the most recent aid package was put together.

    “When the legislative language was being crafted and moving through the process here, everyone was well-aware that the SRC had already taken a number of steps to address the District’s financial challenges,” Zogby told the Notebook. “This notion of somehow taking credit for things that already happened … is off-base.”

    Brady’s negotiation

    The $45 million in question is part of the aid package Corbett announced earlier in the summer. It was to be a one-time influx of state funds to the school district. The money was originally owed by Pennsylvania to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. It comes back to the state as a result of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady’s success convincing the Obama administration to forgive the debt.

    “I talked to the governor’s people and to the governor,” Brady said. “They told me they’d do everything in their power to make sure the $45 million went to the school district. They never told me there was strings attached and now there’s strings attached? That’s unethical and immoral.”

    The school district is asking for $133 million in labor concessions, including salary reductions and health care givebacks. Negotiations on those and other work-rule provisions, including seniority rules, are slated to continue until the teachers contract expires Aug. 31.

    One Philadelphia-based voice expressed some sympathy for the Corbett-Zogby stance.

    “The $45 million from the state could be in the superintendent’s hands by now. Either the SRC or the PFT, but ideally both of them together, can make that happen by putting forth a common-sense package of reforms,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of the reform-advocating Philadelphia Schools Partnership.

    “Closing schools and cutting costs were necessary steps, but they are not by themselves going to transform the quality of teaching and learning,” Gleason said.

    Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, disagreed.

    “It’s the chronic lack of resources that have brought this crisis to Philadelphia schools, and not the work rule provisions and collective bargaining agreements,” Jordan said.

    District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district is “basically indifferent about where the money comes from. We are, at this point, in a situation where we are up against a very hard deadline.”

    Friday deadline approaches

    Superintendent William Hite has said he needs the assurance of $50 million by Friday to open schools on time. Nutter supports the Corbett plan to raise that money by making permanent a 1 percent increase to the city’s sales tax. Clarke has put forth another plan that would give half of the proposed sales-tax dollars to the city’s drastically underfunded pension system. Ideally, he’d forgo the sales-tax extension, which he’s said is unsound economic policy, and raise the $50 million for schools by purchasing, and then selling off, district assets.

    “My primary, first responsibility is the city’s fiscal health,” Clarke said, “and whatever we put forth will take that into account. Understanding the importance of schools, I have to make sure the city is fiscally sound.”

    As the days count down to the Friday deadline, Clarke had this advice: “Stay tuned.”

    The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a WHYY/NewsWorks partner in education coverage, contributed reporting to this article.

     

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