Board Laments Deficit, Fails to Mention Its Own Spending Priorities

Ears on the Board of Education: July 14, 2022

by Diane Payne

With only one item on the agenda and six public speakers, this should have been a quick meeting. But the 2-hour Goals and Guardrails session took up almost half of this 4 ½ hour session.  Eight of the nine Board members attended in person; Cecelia Thompson again attended virtually. 

President Joyce Wilkerson thanked Governor Wolf and the Pennsylvania legislative delegation for passing a state budget that contains historic education funding increases. Unfortunately, the charter reforms that had been hammered out in bipartisan negotiations for years were killed at the last minute. Board Member Mallory Fix Lopez reported that the state legislature has passed HB1642 which will increase recruitment opportunities for new teachers in Philadelphia and also creates opportunities for high school student graduates from the District to receive credits toward a teaching certificate.

BM Thompson gave the Parent and Community Advisory Council (PCAC) report (not on the agenda) with the usual lack of detail and with no indication of the actual impact of this Council.  She noted that PCAC members were on the Superintendent’s transition team, although she didn’t mention that only seven of the eight-seven members of the entire transition team are parents. Thompson also reported that one PCAC member has volunteered to help analyze the 11,000 work order backlog for Philadelphia school buildings.  Giving this kind of responsibility to a parent volunteer of unknown qualifications should have raised questions, but none of the other  Board members asked why this kind of work was not being done by a qualified District employee from the Office of Operations. 

Chief Talent Officer Larisa Shambaugh presented an update on staffing for 2022-23.   The categories below a 90% fill rate include: Nurses at 87%, Building Engineers at 71%, General Cleaners at  88.7%, Food Service Workers at 81.7%, Special Ed Assistants at 88.2%, and Student Climate Staff at 72.5%. Teachers are currently at a 96.5% fill rate. 

Superintendent Tony Watlington remarked that the newly appointed members of his transition team are both local and national experts and that the two co-chairs are Philadelphians of note. He promised that his 5-year plan would be ready by Spring 2023.  But community members who attended last week’s listening sessions have reported that Watlington is already talking about closing more neighborhood schools, using the familiar euphemism “right-sizing”. Watlington claims that 7,000 students have left the District. Will he instruct his 85 committee members to find a way to get those students back–or has he already given up on them? 

(If you haven’t signed up for a listening session go to the Board page and sign up.  Voices of school communities must matter.)

Board Spending Priorities Not Part of Budget Discussion.
Board members heard an extensive presentation from Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson. Reduced funding from a number of sectors will probably result in a negative fund balance by FY25.  Discretionary programs such as child care and summer school could be affected.  Monson noted that programs that can be demonstrated to work could be funded by the city or state; he did not specify how the effectiveness of any program would be measured.  He also noted that a positive outcome of the Fair Funding law suite now being decided in Commonwealth Court could result in more sustained funding.  The Budget reflects reduced funding due to the factors outlined in this page of Monson’s presentation.  

Five Year Plan Changes

  • Reset FY22 Year-end Fund Balance to reflect Parking Authority Payment and liability of Duffield case repayments
  • Reduced Projected City Tax Revenues to reflect final City Budget
  • Reduced Projected Commonwealth Revenues to reflect final Commonwealth Budget Increased Charter costs to reflect retention of Charter Tuition calculation rules
  • Zeroed out “TBD Expenditures” which were dependent on getting full funding proposal approved

This represents a reduction in projected spending in District-operated schools of$1.33 billion over the life of the Five-Year Plan and reduced state reimbursements of $99 million

  • Adjusted Charter expenditures to reflect expenditure reduction between retention of existing Charter Tuition calculation rates and expenditure reductions, the result is a net increase in Charter costs of $452 million over the life of the Five-Year Plan

BM Fix Lopez then embarked on what she characterized as a “rant” about the financial bind the district finds itself in again because of the District’s dependence on the city and state for most funding. She was indignant that politicians would come back and blame the Board for having to cut programs. Fix Lopez claimed that all the Board can ever do is apply band-aids to district needs because the Board has no taxing power, as other Districts do.  BM Julia Danzy concurred, adding that it is important for people to vote. Vice-President Leticia Egea-Hinton opined, without irony, that the Board should be working with education advocates for more funding, not mentioning the Board’s many attempts to silence the public over the past two years, including limiting the number of speakers at all Board meetings. 

Left unsaid was what the Board does control: how they spend the District’s annual $3.6 billion budget. For example, it seems that the Board, having carried out its damage control, has nothing more to say about its recent approval of a one-year,  $450,000 contract with Tennessee consulting firm Joseph and Associates. Despite the well-documented controversial past  of CEO Shawn Joseph and the fact that the firm’s directors and employees have no educational experience in Philadelphia, the Board made a point of justifying this expenditure at the June action meeting.  As APPS’ Lisa Haver said in her commentary in Billy Penn,

“…it’s the final phase of the Joseph & Associates contract that should sound the alarm for defenders of public education: the compilation of a 5-year “strategic plan” for the district. Many recall what happened a decade ago after the last long-range plan from an outside firm, the Boston Consulting Group: school closings and more privatization of neighborhood schools. Any plan that determines the future of the district and its ramifications for families and neighborhoods should be discussed and formulated in public meetings — not the private boardrooms of an out-of-state consulting firm. 

Joseph and Associates have already named the 85 people that they invited to serve on the five committees. Only three of the 85 are teachers; six of the 85 are parents.

Monson then explained the TRANS item, which the Board approved later in the meeting.  Every year the District must borrow money to operate in anticipation of the tax revenue that will eventually flow from the city.  Two standout pieces of information from Monson’s PowerPoint: 
▪ Total Estimated Interest: $13.77 million
▪ Total estimated costs of issuance: $175,000

While Board Members lamented their hands being tied because of how the District is funded, few solutions were offered.  The Board lays all of the blame about charter spending and lack of regulation on Harrisburg, but the Board refuses to hold public charter renewal hearings. When APPS wrote a letter in April to ask about an item approved $226 million, the Board would not offer any explanation. Not one Board member raised the issue of  how much District money that goes directly into the coffers of PNC bank simply of an antiquated payment system. City Councilman Derek Green has been advocating for a public bank which Mayor Kenney recently announced he would no longer be supporting. That might have reduced the tax burden the District pays to giant banking firms, but none of the Board members spoke up on the Mayor’s surprise reversal. In addition, no Board member lamented the money the District spends in debt service or offered a way to forge a path out of this corporate greed dilemma .   

Of course, we should all be working together for the good of our schools and our children. A District leadership structure that carries on the legacy of outsourcing, partial advocacy, opaque information sharing, silencing of stakeholders, and failing to rebuild trust ends up hurting, not helping, our cities schools and children.

No More School Closings

There were only six speakers on this agenda.  District teacher Kristin Luebbert gave Part 2 of her testimony on teacher retention. As both teacher and teacher mentor, she is well versed on this crucial issue, but none of the Board members acknowledged her comments.  APPS member Barbara Dowdall pointed out the loss of school libraries and Certified Teacher Librarians in the District.  She also raised alarms  about Watlington already talking about closing schools before even coming up with a plan for bringing back students lost to other schools during the pandemic.

Board Blames Teachers

For two hours and five minutes, the Board processed the data presented by District staff on Goal 3, Math Grades 3-8.  The District is not on track for this Goal, but there is a very slight upward tick in math scores.  (For those who appreciate educational jargon accompanied by statistics, this presentation can be viewed on the meeting video.)   

President Wilkerson pointed out that Philadelphia students are often in a state of flux which affects their academic progress.  The flux can be due to the instability of housing, but, she pointed out, can also be due to the charter school students who get “counseled out in March” in time for standardized test taking.

BM Thompson alleged that special ed teachers are not doing an adequate job of teaching their students basic math, reading, and writing and that was reflected in the low special ed progress numbers.  She went so far as to say, “If they [teachers] aren’t willing to do the extra work, we might lose some and I’m okay with that.” Thompson has been an advocate for special needs students and families for years, so it is disturbing to see her ignore the shortcomings of the previous administration and to lay all of the blame on teachers.  Thompson has been on the Board long enough to understand the many factors in play here and to take responsibility for her role in this.  Wilkerson had just pointed out the geographic instability of students as one factor.  Fix Lopez and others acknowledged the ongoing financial crisis and its resulting lack of resources for students.  Yet Thompson failed to acknowledge any of these contributing factors.  Scapegoating is not going to contribute to improved outcomes.  

The meeting adjourned after four and a half hours at 8:28 p.m.