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Karen Heller: School district's missteps undercut whole city

At this moment, it's quite possible that more government entities are investigating the School District of Philadelphia than are looking into al-Qaeda.

At this moment, it's quite possible that more government entities are investigating the School District of Philadelphia than are looking into al-Qaeda.

The IRS is conducting a massive audit into the district's financial and personnel practices, as well as its outside contracts, listing 28 areas of inquiry.

The city controller discovered "material weaknesses" and accounting errors in the district's preliminary financial report. "On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 10," said the deputy supervising the audit. "When they give us these statements, these statements are supposed to be correct."

Those who can't do math manage the district's budget.

The city's chief integrity officer is investigating what occurred after an Atlanta charter-school operator suddenly withdrew from running Martin Luther King High, followed by allegations of conflicts of interest and political maneuvering at a possibly hinky meeting attended by School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and State Rep. Dwight Evans.

And the district has a $629 million shortfall. Tuesday was the deadline to pass the 2011-12 budget.

This gaping chasm was created by the loss of a onetime infusion of federal stimulus dollars and draconian funding cuts mandated by the governor.

The former a ninth grader might have anticipated - aren't educators famed for planning? - while the latter was strongly suggested last year by Republican legislators. The leadership sent every Pennsylvania superintendent a letter stating that there was "no guaranteed level of funding" and that the state's position on fiscal responsibility had "changed significantly" from outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell's proposed contribution.

Then-Commissioner David Girard-diCarlo, who has since resigned, warned of coming hard times: "With that kind of scenario, I don't know how we can anticipate that we're going to get more money."

And, yet, district leadership believed it would.

Being superintendent of a large system where three-quarters of students are poor and schools are plagued by violence is among the hardest jobs going. Yes, test scores are slowly improving, a pattern that began under former chief Paul Vallas. He had budget problems, too, a $73 million shortfall, and was run out of town partially for that.

But the current situation is not working.

Every few days a crisis erupts at 440 N. Broad. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has the distinct ability of appearing imperious while positioning herself as a victim. She has failed to secure political and business allies to improve our schools, support that is critical to Philadelphia's future.

The district is in a perpetual state of chaos, ruled by fear, paranoia, and retribution for perceived disloyalty. The city is littered with former school district employees who had the temerity to challenge authority and lost their jobs. Last week, the payroll director was abruptly fired for allegedly failing to tell top officials about the scope of the IRS audit.

Today is Ackerman's third anniversary on the job.

There is a gash in the middle of the city's population. Philadelphia has been wildly successful in attracting younger adults ages 20 to 34, due in part to our central location, affordable housing, bike lanes, and, of course, eminence as a beer-imbiber's paradise. The city has more babies, and more baby boomers.

But our school-age children are leaving, more than 43,000 - one in five - in the last decade, led by their parents. It's like the plot of some science-fiction movie: the town where kindergartners fled.

And they are leaving for one primary reason: education. To many former residents, crime - concentrated in the city's poorest neighborhoods - is a secondary consideration to the quality and safety of our schools.

Much has been made of how Philadelphia actually grew since 2000, and how immigrants have moved here, and that's great. But lost in the chatter is the monumental departure of white people, more than a quarter-million in the last two decades, almost 82,000 in the last. We gain grandparents, but lose parents and children. The city is 37 percent white; the public schools, less than 14.

Deciding to stay in the city is among the costliest decisions a family makes. It takes more than the beleaguered school district to turn around the situation. Change requires the involvement of politicians, committed business leaders, innovators, families. You cannot lead a school district without planning accurately, establishing allies, and maintaining peace.