Archives for category: Philadelphia

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the Philadelphia School Reform Commission has repeatedly exceeded its legal authority by ignoring parts of state law. The head of the SRC said the ruling was a disaster, but others hailed it as a sign that state control of the city’s school was a disaster. The suit was brought by a charter school that objected to the SRC’s cap on its enrollment. Both charter schools and public schools saw the decision as a victory.

 

On the day that the Philadelphia School Reform Commission approved three new charter schools, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling Tuesday that could have grave implications for the cash-strapped district’s finances and operations for years to come.

 

The court ruled that the SRC had no legal power to suspend portions of the state charter law and school code. The ruling strips the commission of extraordinary powers it believed it had – and used.

 

It was too soon to say exactly what the fallout for the school system would be – district lawyers offered no official comment – but early indications were ominous.

 

By declaring unconstitutional a portion of the takeover law that the SRC has relied on heavily, many of the major actions the commission has taken in recent years – up to and including bypassing seniority in teacher assignments – could be subject to reversal.

 

Helen Gym, a parent activist who was recently elected to the Philadelphia City Council, saw the ruling as a rebuke to state control of the city’s public schools and the underfunding of public schools:

 

 

“Yesterday’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling makes unmistakably clear that the School Reform Commission and Pennsylvania’s fifteen-year experiment in state takeover have been a disaster for students and schools.”

“Since its formation, and particularly in recent years, the SRC has used its unprecedented powers to impose new rules that allow schools to operate without essential staff, slash programming, close schools, and violate key sections of the teachers’ contract. The SRC has also continued to recklessly expand the charter sector by approving new charters and ceding control of dozens of schools to private operators. Charter payments have rapidly become the District’s largest cost burden while underfunded, understaffed neighborhood schools languish in disrepair.”

“After years of administrative overreach and failed experimentation, with no end in sight to the ‘fiscal distress’ the Commission was supposed to alleviate, the time has come to dissolve the School Reform Commission and finally give control of Philadelphia’s schools to Philadelphians.”
“Furthermore, with the Court’s declaration that Harrisburg may not abdicate its responsibilities to the SRC, it has become urgently necessary for the General Assembly to fix the state’s broken system for funding and regulating public education. Specifically the legislature must address its deeply-flawed, nineteen-year old charter law, which prevents school districts from exercising full control over charter school authorization and growth. Without action, Philadelphia’s school district will not remain solvent and is at grave risk.”

“Both in Philadelphia and across the state, it is abundantly clear that our system of public schools, so many of which are struggling to provide the most basic services to students, cannot be called ‘thorough and efficient.’ It is now up to the Courts to weigh in on the need for a fair funding system, and to ensure that the legislature does its job.”

 
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/education/20160217_State_Supreme_Court_rules_against_SRC__fallout_unknown.html#wdR0HtKqi4wMVyxz.99

 

 

The ex-principal of the Franklin Towne Charter School has filed suit against his former employer, charging that he was fired because he objected to improper activities.

 

A federal whistle-blower suit claims an elementary principal at the Franklin Towne Charter School in Bridesburg was hired under false pretenses and then terminated after he raised serious concerns about its operations.

 

Todd A. Dupell alleges that he was wrongfully dismissed as principal last August after he complained to the board chair that the charter was billing the Philadelphia School District for full-day kindergarten even though the program was not full day; the charter was awash in nepotism; and the school was paying the wife of a former board member $80,000 for a nonexistent job because otherwise her husband could “make noise.”

 

Dupell also alleged that the charter was violating state law because it was not providing required services to students who were learning English….

 

Dupell gave up his tenured post as a principal in Bucks County to work for the charter school. He was told by staffers that the former principal had been removed because of improper activities, including charges of shoplifting and using excessive force against a student. Then Dupell learned that the former principal would be his supervisor. Dupell said that when he met with the chair of the charter board to express his concerns, he was terminated.

 

 
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/education/20160208_Ex-principal_of_Franklin_Towne_charter_files_whistle-blower_suit.html#RzXdREHwHCei8ZmD.99

Matthew L. Mandel, a National Board Certified Teacher in Philadelphia, is dumbfounded that Superintendent William Hite got a new contract when the district is in disarray. Please note, when you open the article, that the newspaper/website added a photograph with a caption that contradicts what Matthew wrote. In the article, he explained why it was too soon to give a new five-year contract to the Superintendent but the caption reads: “Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. deserved to have his contract extended.” The point of Matthew’s article is: No, he doesn’t.

 

Mandel writes:

 

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. referred to a recent education bill passed by the Pennsylvania Senate as a “recipe for disaster.” That phrase also describes the School Reform Commission’s decision to extend Hite’s contract by five years, with two years remaining on the original.

 

In a statement, SRC Chair Marjorie Neff said it was the right time to lock in Hite for the long term, lauding him for demonstrating “strong leadership through an extraordinarily difficult time.” I wonder if she feels the same about losing scores of superb classroom teachers who left to work somewhere they feel valued and respected, or the many more who retired because they couldn’t take the conditions and mistreatment in the School District of Philadelphia anymore.

 

Neff, a retired teacher and principal, nearly discarded 50 years of collective bargaining progress when she supported cancellation of the teachers’ contract last year. She called that decision one of the most difficult of her life. She doesn’t appear nearly as troubled, however, that a district on financial life-support has spent millions on bad contracts and the endless pursuit of judicial relief from its obligations.

 

One could argue that Hite has achieved everything he was hired to do and, thus, has earned another contract….

 

 

I’m puzzled by the apparent urgency to get this contract extension done now, with no state budget, stagnant test scores, unhealthy and deplorable conditions in school buildings, and taxpayers who believe they have no voice in education decisions. Could it be that the district was afraid of losing him? If so, it points to another troubling pattern that has festered under state control of Philadelphia’s schools.
In a district with the highest child poverty rate in America – and dedicated but demoralized employees that have gone four years without a raise – the unelected and unaccountable SRC continues to place its emphasis on meeting the needs of central office management and charter-school operators rather than of the children and educators who spend their lives in Philly’s public schools.

 

“This contract extension is just the latest example of how the SRC’s priorities don’t align with what’s important to the district’s educators, children, and caregivers. And the latest example of this dichotomy should serve as a rallying cry to return to local control of our schools.

 

“Our district educates some of the nation’s neediest children, but lacks even basic supplies and enough critical staff to compensate for the unfair hand dealt to many of our kids. Yet, the SRC has prioritized a contract extension that affords Hite the security that Philadelphia’s teachers, children, and caregivers can only dream of.”

 
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20151221_Hite_contract_deal_shows_SRC_s_misplaced_priorities.html#qubrOcQL8XRcy17G.99

 

 

Steven Singer is a teacher in Pennsylvania. This is a moving post, and he gave me permission to post it in full. It has many links. If you want to read them, open the article.

 

 

Pennsylvania lawmakers are ready to help all students across the Commonwealth – if only they can abuse, mistreat and trample some of them.

 

Which ones? The poor black and brown kids. Of course!

 

That seems to be the lesson of a school code bill passed with bipartisan support by the state Senate Thursday.

 

The legislation would require the Commonwealth to pick as many as 5 “underperforming” Philadelphia schools a year to close, charterize or just fire the principal and half the staff. It would also allow non-medically trained personnel to take an on-line course before working in the district to treat diabetic school children. And it would – of course – open the floodgates to more charter schools!

 

It’s a dumb provision, full of unsubstantiated facts, faulty logic and corporate education reform kickbacks. But that’s only the half of it!

 

The bill is part of a budget framework agreed to by Governor Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature necessary to finally pass a state-wide spending plan. The financial proposal has been held hostage for almost half a year!

 

The major sticking point has been school funding. Democrats like Wolf demand an increase. Republicans refuse. And the worst part is that the increase would only begin to heal the cuts the GOP made over the last four years.

 

Republicans just won’t clean up their own mess.

 

They slashed public school budgets by almost $1 billion per year for the last four years with disastrous consequences. Voters who could make little headway against a GOP legislature entrenched in office through gerrymandering rebelled by kicking the Republican Governor out of Harrisburg and voting in Wolf, a new chief executive who promised to support school children.

 

But for the last 5 months, the Republican-controlled legislature simply refused to spend money on – yuck – school children! Especially poor brown and black kids who rely more on state funding! Barf!

 

Finally a bargain was struck to put the money back, but only if it screws over more poor black and brown kids.

 

As usual, Philadelphia Schools are the state’s whipping boy.

 

For decades saddled with a host of social ills yet starved of resources, Philadelphia Schools simply couldn’t function on funding from an impoverished local tax base. The 8th largest school district in the country needed a financial investment from the state to make up the difference. However, in 2001 the Commonwealth decided it would only do this if it could assume control with a mostly unelected School Recovery Commission (SRC). Now after 14 years of failure, the state has decided annually to take a quintet of Philly schools away from the state and give them to – THE STATE! The State Department of Education, that is, which will have to enact one of the above terrible reforms to turn the schools around.

 

Yet each of these reforms is a bunch of baloney!

 

Hiring non-medical personnel with on-line training to treat diabetic kids!? Yes, two children died in Philly schools recently because budget cuts took away full-time school nurses. But this solution is an outrage! Try proposing it at a school for middle class or rich kids! Try proposing it for a school serving a mostly white population!

 

More charter schools!? Most new charter companies aren’t even interested in taking over Philly learning institutions. There’s no money in it! The carcass has been picked clean!

 

Privatizing public schools has never increased academic outcomes. Charter schools – at best – do no better than traditional public schools and – most often – do much worse.

 

Closing schools is a ridiculous idea, too. No school has ever been improved by being shut down. Students uprooted from their communities rarely see academic gains.

 

And firing staff because the legislature won’t provide resources is like kicking your car because you forgot to buy gas. You can’t get blood from a stone.

 

But this is what Republicans are demanding. And most of the Democrats are giving in. Every state Senator from Philadelphia voted for this plan – though reluctantly.

 

Is this really the only way to reach some kind of normalcy for the rest of the state? Do we really need to bleed Philadelphia some more before we can heal the self-inflicted wounds caused by our conservative legislators?

 

The bill includes a $100 million increase for Philadelphia Schools. But this is just healing budget cuts made to the district four years ago. Until Republicans took over the legislature, Philadelphia received this same sum from the state to help offset the vampire bite of charter schools on their shrinking budgets. Now – like all impoverished Pennsylvania schools – that charter school reimbursement is only a memory.

 

So this money only puts Philly back to where it was financially a handful of years ago when it was still struggling.

 

It’s a bad bargain for these students. Though some might argue it’s all we’ve got.

 

A sane government would increase funding to meet the needs of the students AND return the district to local control.

 

Republicans demand accountability for any increase in funding but how does this new bill do that exactly? Charter schools are not accountable to anyone but their shareholders. The School Recovery Commission has been failing for over a decade. Since most are political appointees, who are they accountable to really?

 

A duly elected school board would be accountable to residents. If voters didn’t like how they were leading the district, they could vote them out. THAT would be accountability. Not this sham blood sacrifice.

 

The state House is set to vote on this bill soon and will probably pass it, too. Maybe that’s just as well. Maybe there really is no other choice in the twisted halls of Pennsylvania politics.

 

However, let’s be honest about it. This is some classist, racist bullshit.

The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was intended to add resources to schools that enrolled the poorest students. Its goal was equality of educational opportunity, not higher test scores. But forget about it. The goal of federal and state policy is raising test scores.

 

What about equity? What about equality of educational opportunity?

 

Read and view this portrait of Philadelphia’s filthy public schools and ask how Americans can tolerate such conditions? This is shameful.

 

Every member of the Pennsylvania legislature should walk through the schools of the City of Brotherly Love and ask themselves: Why did we cut the budget? Why are the children of Philadelphia less deserving of decent learning conditions than the children in suburban districts?

Yesterday, the ex-CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, pleaded guilty to a kickback scheme involving SUPES Academy. She is facing serious jail time. The owners of SUPES Academy, who made an agreement to pay BBB, have yet to be judged. Mayor Rahm Emanuel would like to pin the guilt squarely on BBB, but the Chicago Tribune revealed yesterday that the owner of SUPES is an ally of Emanuel and recommended first J.C. Blizzard as CEO, then BBB.

Jonathan Pelto, master blogger of Connecticut, sees connections that go beyond what we know so far. He sees Paul Vallas as a player in the Chicago drama. If you like to read truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories, read his post.

Pelto writes:

Charges were also filed against The SUPES Academy LLC and Synesi Associates LLC, as well as against the owners of those two companies, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas. According to the indictment, their role in the kick-back scheme includes charges of bribery and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

A third company owned by the two individuals, PROACT Search, a superintendent search firm that provided New Haven with Superintendent Garth Harris and Norwalk with Superintendent Steven Adamowski has also been caught up in the FBI’s investigation into the Chicago scandal….

Prior to being hand-picked by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to run Chicago’s Public Schools, Byrd-Bennett worked as a consultant and lead teacher for The Supes Academy, worked as a consultant for Synesi Associates and was listed as a part of the management team at PROACT Search.

While many key actors in the Corporate Education Reform Industry have been involved with Gary Solomon and his companies, one of the most prominent names on Solomon’s list of close colleagues is the Great Paul Vallas, the Education Reform Guru and former CEO of the Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans public school systems.

More recently, Democratic Governor and education reform disciple Dannel Malloy brought Vallas to Bridgeport, Connecticut and then twisted Connecticut law in knots so that Vallas could stay for two years until local residents had finally had enough and forced Vallas to leave the job and return to Illinois.

As for the situation in Chicago, it could certainly be said that Gary Solomon’s ability to build such a “successful” corporate education reform company is due, in no small part, to his close relationship with Paul Vallas.

Vallas not only hired Solomon and his companies when he worked in Philadelphia, but brought Solomon with him to New Orleans.

And Vallas worked to bring other business to Solomon and his companies as well.

While Vallas has publicly claimed that he has no financial interest in any of Solomon’s consulting activities, in Vallas’ Philadelphia days Solomon’s consulting company advertised that it had “the exclusive rights to Paul Vallas’ model of education reform….”

The story gets weirder and weirder, as Vallas and Solomon play tag team:

When Paul Vallas moved on to New Orleans to head the Louisiana Recovery School District, Solomon picked up even more lucrative contracts.

But it is a story out of Illinois that provides a true snap-shot and insider’s view into how Vallas and the Corporate Education Reform Industry works;

While Gary Solomon and his companies profited greatly via Vallas in Philadelphia and New Orleans, it is the somewhat more hidden story surrounding the Rockford School District (PSD 150) in Illinois the provides telling evidence about how Vallas and the Corporate Education Reform Industry works.

More consulting contracts. Follow the story. Pelto is an amazing investigative reporter.

In Philadelphia, thanks to state law, the city’s public schools are in dire need of renovation, while charter schools build and acquire facilities they can’t afford. Here is one of the articles that revealed this scandalous situation. It is not sustainable to maintain two school systems in one city or state.

The editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes:

“Philadelphia’s regular public school buildings are so run down that the cost to repair them is estimated at $4 billion. Those buildings aren’t likely to get face-lifts with the School District limping from funding crisis to funding crisis. In contrast, the city’s charter schools have received $500 million in taxpayer-backed bonds for new or improved buildings….

“With no one saying no, some charters are in a frenzy to acquire or renovate buildings and finance the transactions with bond issues they can’t afford. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. issues bonds for charters, but fees for lawyers, consultants, and others who profit from the deals aren’t fully disclosed.

“Bonds for charters cost more because the risks are higher, Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker told Philly.com’s Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs. Those risks are passed on to taxpayers, who get stuck with even more costs when charters default, which has become common nationally.

“Consider the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. It was the first Philadelphia charter to receive bond funding, and the first to default. The Northern Liberties school spent $11 million in bond funds in 2005, but closed abruptly in December. Taxpayers have paid $6 million in debt service, but the building will likely be sold to pay creditors.

“String Theory Charter School in Center City is paying $5.6 million a year in debt service on the $55 million it borrowed to purchase a swanky building. The charter’s debt service has helped put String Theory $500,000 in the red and forced it to cancel some classes and bus service.

“The $3,895 per student String Theory spends on debt service for the high-rise it bought far exceeds the average of $875 per student being spent on district schools such as Solis-Cohen Elementary in the Northeast, which was so run-down that its students had to be transferred for safety.”

Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20150917_Debt_chokes_charters.html#2tmyqUMjHoGHOjhp.99

Patrick Kerkstra writes that he was always skeptical when anyone suggested that charters (at least some of them) were seeking profits. Now, having read about what is happening in Philadelphia, he is not so sure. I remember the early days of the charter movement. My colleague Checker Finn Jr. used to say, again and again, that there was a deal: if the state gives us (charters) autonomy, we will be accountable. The charters have autonomy but they no longer want accountability.

Kerkstra sees three big issues:

  1. Charters are no more efficient about their use of money than district officials. People should get over the belief that private=smarter, better.
  2. Profit-minded businesses are destroying whatever moral authority the education reform movement had.
    I’ve long cringed when ed reform skeptics attacked the motives of charter advocates and others who’d like to see the public school system reinvented (or scrapped). With very rare exceptions, the individuals I’ve interviewed and spoken with in the ed reform movement over the years are True Believers: their fury and impatience with traditional public education is real and righteous. I haven’t always agreed with where they’re coming from, to say the least, but I’ve long dismissed accusations that reformers are in it for the money.

    Now I’m not so sure. There plainly is a large and growing group of interests within the education reform movement that stand to profit as traditional public education shrinks….

    Charters were supposed to be different. Traditional public schools were beholden: to teacher’s unions, to political masters, to a powerful class of consultants and attorneys. Charters were supposed to be the indies. But as the charter movement grows, a big corps of financial interests has grown up around it. Increasingly, charters look just as financially beholden to an array of interests, only it’s harder to tell exactly who and what those interests are.

    This is a really significant problem for ed reform advocates, and I’m not sure that it can be solved. The moral clarity of the early charter movement — nonprofit, about the kids, self-reliant — well, that’s gone. Increasingly, it seems not just fair to question the motives of ed reformers, but necessary.

  3.  The School District’s charter oversight office is still understaffed and under-resourced. And charter operators frequently bristle at the prospect of more accountability. But something’s got to give here. The charter movement can’t keep growing and eating up tax dollars while operating in the relative darkness.
    Read more at http://www.phillymag.com/citified/2015/09/17/charter-school-problems/#f82Suzej5Ge7GLbg.99

What would you rather be? A mid-level bureaucrat monitoring fiscal matters in the school district or a millionaire?

Find the answer to this question in this article about Philadelphia.

“MANY OF the recent charter bond deals have been helped by Santilli & Thomson, a New Jersey-based firm that has made millions off consulting contracts and bond fees.

“The firm, run by ex-School District of Philadelphia finance officials Gerald Santilli and Michael Thomson, touts on its website “more than 50 years of combined experience in municipal school management.”

“There is no way to know exactly how much Santilli & Thomson has earned in taxpayer-funded contracts from charter schools, according to a district spokesman. The firm did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

“However, a Philly.com analysis of financial documents for several charter schools that received municipal bonds found that Santilli & Thomson has billed at least $5 million since 2010….

“After working for 14 years as executive director of fiscal management for the school district, Santilli moved into charter consulting full time in 1999, shortly before String Theory was founded.

“Santilli personally helped found several other schools, like First Philadelphia Charter and its sister school, Tacony Academy, before starting his own consulting firm with Thomson.

“After a while, it appears [Santilli] realized that this could be a lucrative and growing business, and that he could make more money doing the work on his own,” said former school district chief financial officer Michael Masch.

“Santilli & Thomson was subpoenaed as part of a federal investigation into charter corruption in 2010, but no one there was ever charged with a crime and the firm’s contracts have continued to grow. The charters that Santilli helped found have become some of his biggest clients and secured some of the biggest bond deals in city history.

“What Santilli does to facilitate these arrangements is unclear. Consultants like Santilli & Thomson face little scrutiny from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.”

Other firms have also reaped the benefits of charter consulting. The best pay-off comes when the company that owns the charter owns the space used by the school and pays itself large leasing fees. Sweet.

“Reimbursements rose 79 percent – to $6.8 million annually – while the number of charter schools increased by just 20 percent, state records show. Only a fraction goes to schools that rent their buildings from unrelated owners.

“The issue isn’t limited to Philadelphia, according to state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who is conducting a statewide review of charter leases.

“About half the charter schools we’ve audited basically have this circular arrangement where there’s an entity that owns the building and an entity that leases the building, and they’re connected,” he said.”

Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20150914_The_get-richbusiness_of_charter_consulting.html#LIKI5ysP4FrAUQ3E.99

An investigation in Philadelphia finds that some charters now spend more on paying down the debt of lavish facilities than they spend on instruction.

“THREE FRANKLIN Plaza, a bow-shaped eight-story building at 16th and Vine streets, once hummed with 1,700 GlaxoSmithKline white-collar workers.

“Today, it is empty more than three months out of the year, a lone security guard watching over the corporate art still hanging in the lobby.

“From September to June, a charter school called String Theory occupies half the floors. The school acquired and began renovating this premier office tower in 2013 as part of a $55 million tax-exempt bond deal, arranged with help from the city’s biggest economic-development agency. It was the largest bond deal of its kind in city history.

“It is also the most conspicuous example yet of a risky, expensive and fast-growing financial scheme underpinning the rapid expansion of Philadelphia charters – a bond market now worth nearly $500 million. But the bond financing behind the mountain of money gets little scrutiny as to whether the debt is a smart use of Pennsylvania’s limited education dollars.

“The lack of transparency can translate into deals that may be unsustainable. Shortly after moving into its flashy high-rise, String Theory posted its first operating deficit. After revealing it was $500,000 in the red from paying out millions annually to bondholders, administrators told parents that they were cutting certain classes and suspending bus service as cost-saving measures.

“On the plus side, if the String Theory board members who indirectly own the Center City high-rise sell it, there could be a big profit. But is this the way charters should operate?”

“Charter schools used to inhabit repurposed supermarkets or old storefronts, but a Philly.com analysis of bond documents showed that an increasing number – one out of three charters today – have bought or constructed newer and larger school buildings with tax-exempt bonds, paying millions in debt and fees to consultants along the way.

“Bonds – school debt sold to investors who are gradually paid back with interest – have become popular among charters because they allow lower borrowing costs than standard commercial loans. Bonds are commonly floated by governments and school districts to get up-front money for infrastructure projects, but charters were long considered too risky an investment because they can be abruptly shut down.
As charter schools became more established, investment prospects improved. But the bonds that charter schools have tapped are still riskier and come with “junk” ratings, carrying high interest rates.

“They’re getting bond ratings that have an 8 or 8 1/2 percent interest rate, whereas a school district getting [government] bonds to finance a project can get much lower interest rates,” said Bruce Baker, a Rutgers education professor.

“This leaves charters spending more education dollars on interest payments – $78 million over 30 years on top of String Theory’s $55 million bond, for instance – at rates that are double or triple what the district pays.
The financing process and real-estate transactions themselves also entail millions in consulting and legal fees. Schools like String Theory can become enmeshed in complex and costly deals for marquee buildings that are difficult to sustain.

“There’s no real scrutiny of these deals, and charters end up saddled with big fixed costs,” said Michael Masch, former chief financial officer for the School District of Philadelphia. “They’re saying, ‘Look at this really prestigious building we have, that’ll attract people.’ But it’s a ridiculous amount of money to be spending on the facilities side.”

“Today, an increasing number of charters are spending more of their budgets paying down debt than on actual instruction. In the case of String Theory, which enrolls 1,400 students, the school now spends nearly one-third – $5.5 million – of its $16 million budget just to occupy the half-empty 228,000-square-foot high-rise, along with two older, smaller schools in South Philadelphia. That figure is more than String Theory spends on teachers’ wages – $5.3 million.”

Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20150914_Charter_schools__Prefer_building_booms_to_classrooms_.html#aUSVATZcLzHUkTEj.99