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Primary document: Green letter to Nutter on school district oversight

This morning, Councilman Bill Green sent a letter to Mayor Nutter about establishing better oversight of the school district. We're pasting the text below. The main points: 1) Green says the District did not provide Council with information it requested at its budget hearing two weeks ago; 2) Green wants Council involved in new district oversight; 3) Green says he's on board with Councilman Clarke's idea of an "accountability grant," in which the city would give money to the district only after it meets certain conditions.

Letter below the jump. See also the mayor's letter to the SRC.

June 6, 2011

The Honorable Michael A. Nutter

Mayor of Philadelphia

City Hall Room 215

Philadelphia, PA 19107

Dear Mayor Nutter:

Further to your letter to the School Reform Commission yesterday, in which you outlined a series of requests for information from the School District of Philadelphia and joined in City Council's request of last week to enter into a formal accountability agreement between the District and the City, I write to raise several points.

1. Pending Information Requests

As the Administration is aware, City Council members have already asked the District many of the same questions you now raise. In a budget hearing two weeks ago, for example, we requested analysis of the relative efficacy of programs the District is maintaining compared to those it plans to cut – an inquiry the District did not deign to answer (or even to list) in its purported responses to Council's budget questions provided last Thursday.

In budget hearings over the last three years, I have requested information regarding the District's financial practices, including the actual cost of providing the services proven to generate the greatest educational benefits for our children – again, questions that have not been answered. Key stakeholders such as Parents United for Public Education, as well as reporters from The Notebook, have also made formal inquiries into these issues with minimal cooperation from the District.

It is surprising indeed that the Administration had not received the kind of basic information now requested – including, for instance, how the District would spend additional local funding – before it proposed major tax increases and, in conjunction with the District, convened meetings of parents, education advocates, clergy members, affinity groups, and others to press them to lobby City Council to pass such measures. (For the Administration to now be calling on the District for accountability and transparency, rather than sermonizing that citizens should demand that Council stop "talking" (i.e., asking hard questions) and just act (i.e., raise taxes) is, for sure, a welcome change of course.)

Also surprising is that none of these questions appear to have been raised in the Administration's bi-weekly meetings with the District's Chief Financial Officer and Deputy Superintendents, its monthly meetings with the Superintendent, or to the two mayor-appointed School Reform Commission members.

I am hopeful that all pending requests for information from City Council, in addition to those outlined in your letter, will be responded to in a timely and thorough manner, and that such information will be shared with all interested parties.

2. Meaningful Oversight

The crisis at the School District is not over, but it is a crisis stemming more from a lack of meaningful oversight and good stewardship than from a lack of funding. I refer you to the excellent pieces in the Daily News and Inquirer today by Phil Goldsmith and Christopher Paslay, respectively, which define the issues and problem well. Full-day kindergarten having been spared, we cannot just throw money over the wall and stop paying attention. We need a concrete commitment from the District to use its resources for initiatives that produce significant and demonstrable results for students. This is something numerous Council members have been pushing for over the past many weeks, with various members already stating publicly that they would not vote to provide additional resources to the District unless and until valuable, data-based programs (early childhood education, accelerated schools, etc.) were restored.

Given that two out of five seats on the School Reform Commission are mayoral appointments, the Mayor's Office has been meeting bi-weekly with District staff, as well as monthly with the Superintendent, and the City provides the District with more than $800 million in annual support, it is troubling that the City does not already have a more cooperative relationship with the District. The instant call for additional oversight seems designed to continue efforts to increase taxes and is insufficient to provide adequate accountability by the District to parents and City Council. The Administration and City Council must now work together to use this current crisis to precipitate a fundamental change in how the District interacts with and answers to the City.

By providing thorough responses to every City Council member's request for information during this year's budget hearings, as well as those posed in your letter, the District could take a step toward building a more cooperative relationship with its City partners. Going forward, however, it is clear that the City must assume additional fiscal and operational oversight of the District. This should include, as we have both now suggested, five-year fiscal plans that must be approved by Council in addition to yearly budgets, as the City is required to produce, and, perhaps, PICA oversight.

I share your desire to see the City enter into a written agreement with the District to ensure greater accountability going forward, but such an agreement must include City Council as a party. Like you, Council members represent hundreds of thousands of families with children in public schools. These families trust the District with educating their children during the school day, and they trust City Council to hold public entities accountable for how their tax dollars are spent. As the elected governing body of the City that authorizes all local support to the District, Council must be empowered to obtain information (including through the use of subpoenas, if necessary), have free access to District data, communicate more regularly with District personnel, and ensure that the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars we send to the District every year are being spent wisely and in the best interest of Philadelphia students. It is only reasonable and appropriate that Council be able to hold the District accountable, just as we do other entities receiving city funds.

3. Mechanism for any Additional Funding

With respect to the current fiscal crisis, Majority Whip Councilman Clarke has already proposed that any additional funding to the District in FY12 be in the form of an "accountability grant," which would only be dispersed upon the District meeting specific terms and conditions. Rather than enacting new revenue measures or raising taxes that would be automatically allocated to the District, as the Administration proposes, any additional funding for the District should be placed in reserve, as proposed by Councilman Clarke. This funding structure ensures that the City will maintain control over how much funding is actually allocated and also when it is dispersed.

The unlikelihood of the District providing thorough and satisfactory responses to pending questions from City Council and the Administration in the scant time left before the budget process must conclude makes it doubly important that any additional funding not be in the form of a revenue source directly allocated to the District.

Perhaps most importantly, in talking with state officials my understanding is that the City may be able to receive a waiver from the Commonwealth of the Act 46 "maintenance of effort" requirement for any additional funding provided in FY12 through Councilman Clarke's proposed structure so that the City will be better equipped to continue to hold the District accountable. I hope the Administration will work with Council to request this waiver from our partners in Harrisburg.

With respect to the source of additional support, new or higher taxes are not the answer. The Administration promised Philadelphians a budget with no new taxes well after it knew that stimulus funding was coming to an end, well after it knew that the new administration in Harrisburg would be reducing education funding, and well after it was informed by the District that it faced fiscal challenges. We went through months of Council budget hearings (as well as a primary election) operating under this premise and citizens deserve better than a last minute "bait and switch."

If there was a time to ask for new taxes, it was back in March; and if there was a basis for doing so, it was only after the questions you now ask – questions many of us have been asking for years – were satisfactorily answered.

Based on questions raised at Council budget hearings, the District is well on its way to solving the SEPTA TransPass issue and has figured out how to reallocate funds to restore full-day kindergarten. I am confident that with additional work – and additional input – we can identify the $50M or so in additional funding the District needs through savings in its own budget or in the City's budget. Those combined budgets total $6.5 billion – we can find savings of less than 1% even at this late date. Many have already publicly proposed them and I will not belabor them here.

Providing a quality education to our children is, without question, the single greatest challenge facing Philadelphia. I share your desire to continue making much-needed improvements in our city's school system, and I look forward to working with you, my Council colleagues, and the District in a more collaborative manner going forward to ensure that every child in our city receives a quality education and that the School District is more accountable to us and parents.


Bill Green

Councilman At-Large

cc: Members of the School Reform Commission

Governor Tom Corbett

Secretary Ron Tomalis

Council President Anna C. Verna

Members of City Council

Clarence D. Armbrister, Chief of Staff

Rob Dubow, Director of Finance

Shelley Smith, City Solicitor

Lori Shorr, Chief Education Advisor to the Mayor

Dr. Arlene Ackerman, Superintendent

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