by Diane Payne
March 30, 2017
This March 23rd meeting of the School Reform Commission had been posted on the School District (SD) website for months as a regularly scheduled Action Meeting. For some reason, many of those who called the district to sign up to speak were told they had to speak on the topic of next year’s budget. APPS sent an email to the SRC requesting that they inform the district employees who take registration information that the district had never posted this as a budget meeting and that the public cannot be barred from speaking on general topics at any SRC Action Meeting.
Before we begin to look at the only topic on the meeting agenda—the adoption of the $2.8 billion lump sum budget—we should examine the ways in which the SRC continues to shut the public out of the process, withhold information that should be readily available, and violate the letter and spirit of the Sunshine Act.
The 2016 Commonwealth Court-ordered settlement of the suit brought by APPS after SRC violations of the Sunshine Act stipulates that resolutions must be posted two weeks prior to each meeting. However, there was no text or description of the resolution listed posted prior to this meeting. APPS sent an email to Chair Joyce Wilkerson asking why the SRC neglected to post the resolution summary. Ms. Wilkerson replied that the budget was not ready for posting and that the resolution could not be posted until a day or two before the meeting. Thus, the resolution would be treated as a “walk-on”; members of the public could sign up to speak on it at the beginning of the meeting.
We are talking about a $2.8 billion dollar budget here. The city’s budget is approximately $4 billion. Of course, the city posts its budget about a month before their months-long committee process begins, during which the public has at least two opportunities to speak to City Council on it. The SRC voted on this budget BEFORE the public was able to read it. There was a quick power-point presentation on the major points presented by Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson before the SRC voted to approve. This episode carries on the tradition of the SRC’s treating the public’s right to know as a minor point.
All four appointed commissioners—Chair Joyce Wilkerson, Dr. Christopher McGinley, Farah Jimenez, and Bill Green—were present at this action meeting of the SRC. The PA State Senate still has not confirmed Governor Wolf’s nominee, Estelle Richman. The Senate has not voiced any objections to Ms. Richman; it seems that they just haven’t gotten around to it. Harrisburg imposed the SRC on Philadelphia but won’t make the effort to make sure we have a fully functioning body. This is not the first time the State Senate has left the SRC without all of its seats filled.
The fifteen registered speakers included five APPS members. APPS members attend every SRC meeting, speaking out against the outsourcing of district services and the destabilizing of neighborhood schools. The public should be aware that it is the resolution process that drives SRC policy, ideology and expenditures. It is here that we watch the dissolution, in ways both small and large, of our public school system.
Two community members challenged the SRC and Dr. Hite to justify the district’s spending priorities. Three teachers from Taylor Elementary reminded the SRC that their failure to offer a fair contract to PFT members was causing real financial hardships for the district’s professional staff. Video of these testimonies are on the APPS website
Both Superintendent Hite and Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson presented information on the district’s 5-year financial plan. The only resolution distributed at the meeting (but not posted online before the meeting) stated that the SRC would be voting on the FY17/18 lump-sum budget. The lump-sum budget must be presented to City Council on May 10, 2017 when district officials will be questioned on it. Dr. Hite’s power-point presentation cited increases in graduation rates, literacy coaches, attendance rates, and “talent” resources, but he gave no data in any of these areas. Monson’s power point gave a summary of a five-year plan that included a positive fund balance for this year and next but would move to a negative fund balance by FY 18/19. He noted that revenues are growing by 2% annually while expenditures are growing by 4% annually.
Monson stated repeatedly that the biggest driver of district expenses are charter school payments, followed by PSERS payments and labor contracts. (School districts, like all public service entities, are labor-intensive, unlike manufacturing in which machinery comprises a large part of the budget.) In response to questioning from Commissioner Green, Monson noted that targeted investments such as Early Literacy are being funded, but no additional funding that would go directly into individual school budgets is expected at this time.Targeted investments such as Early Literacy are being funded, but no additional funding that would go directly into individual school budgets is expected at this time.
Commissioner Green pursued a line of questioning to Monson about his opinion regarding where district funds were being spent, in particular, on pensions. Monson initially demurred, saying, in effect, that he reports the numbers but does not decide how funds are spent. Rather than respect Monson’s position, Green continued to ask Monson what he thought about the current pension system. At that point, Monson made the shocking statement that the pension system is “immoral” and that it is wrong to force the younger teachers “to be the last investors in a Ponzi scheme”. Unfortunately, no other member of the SRC informed Monson and Green that a Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation and that perpetrating one is a criminal offense. Nor did anyone point out that while school professionals have been contributing to the fund with every paycheck, the state has for years failed to make its expected adequate payments to PSERS, using that money for other purposes. Now Harrisburg calls for pension “reform”.
Bill Green, Public Advocate?
Bill Green questioned Monson and Miles Shore, Interim Chief of the Office of General Counsel, about any legal consequences that could arise if the SRC failed to pass the lump-sum budget at this meeting. Monson told Green that it is the prerogative of the commissioners to decide their vote. Miles Shore would not, or could not, give a definitive answer; he did say that voting on the lump-sum was not the same as voting on the long-term budget. Green stated that he didn’t see the value in voting to approve a lump-sum budget statement that was inadequate for the needs of our students. He recommended offering a lump-sum budget that clearly outlined what it would take to provide all of the resources the city’s students need, then trying to persuade City Council to increase the city’s spending on schools.
Each of the Commissioners stated their agreement with Green on the need but disagreed on the idea of not passing this resolution. Chair Wilkerson suggested that a motion from the floor be offered to propose a budget for City Council to show what our schools really need. Resolution SRC-1 passed 3-1, with Green dissenting.
Green also directed comments to the teachers who spoke of the devastating effects, on both staff and students, of the district’s failure to negotiate a fair contract for four years. Green took the opportunity, as he has done at several meetings, to blame the union. He stated that the district had offered the PFT a $150 million package and that the district could not afford anything more. This is not the first time Green has violated the rules of the negotiating process by reporting what had been proposed by one side. Management has no right to communicate with labor, especially in public, about what union leaders had accepted or rejected at the table. It is our hope that Chair Wilkerson will set a policy that all members of the SRC respect the rules of collective bargaining.
Resolution from the Floor
The meeting concluded with Commissioner Jimenez making the resolution from the floor proposing that the district prepare an alternative budget, as suggested by Wilkerson. This became SRC – 2, and the floor was opened to the public to speak on this resolution. (The SRC changed its rules to allow public comment on resolutions from the floor after its settlement with APPS on Sunshine Act violations.) Lisa Haver spoke on the need to take a stand and not continue to present inadequate budgets. District staff member Nicole Lepore-Jackson admonished the commissioners that the passing of this lump-sum budget statement was a clear signal of their disregard of school staff who are working without a contract.
Commissioner Green made some confusing comments at this time. In reference to Resolution SRC -1, he said “…we just passed a fake budget probably because we made some deals with the city and state that we wouldn’t press for more money this year that I am not aware of. Perhaps the other commissioners or members of this administration would like to speak about that…” He didn’t explain what he meant by that, and none of the commissioners responded. Clarification of those remarks by Mr. Green, perhaps at the next SRC meeting, would be greatly appreciated.
All commissioners voted to approve new Resolution SRC-2. There are a number of questions, which again, should be answered at the next meeting, about what can or will be done with this alternative budget. Will it be presented to City Council along with the one passed by the SRC? Or was the whole discussion an exercise in grandstanding?
April SRC Meetings
The next two SRC meetings will be held at 4:30 PM on April 20 and April 27 at 440 N. Broad Street. To register to testify, call 215-400-4180 by 4:30 p.m. the day before. The SRC should hear the voices of the parents, students, and educators who must live with the consequences of their votes. Please consider registering to speak and helping us to advocate for our children and to hold the SRC accountable for its decisions.