The head of the state board that runs Philadelphia schools said yesterday that it's time to end the school-funded system of patronage jobs at the city Board of Revision of Taxes.
Robert L. Archie Jr., chairman of the School Reform Commission, said he would support moving 80 BRT positions off the school payroll, where they have been stashed for decades to avoid a City Charter provision that bans city employees from engaging in political activity.
Because school employees are not subject to the ban, the city's Democratic and Republican bosses have been free to fill the jobs with party workers and other loyalists.
"This is not an efficient arrangement," Archie said, responding by e-mail to questions from The Inquirer about the long-standing arrangement.
If the schools must continue to help pay for the BRT, he said, a better way would be to turn over the money to the city directly, and put all the workers on the city payroll, where they would be barred from engaging in politics.
An Inquirer series found that at least three dozen of the BRT jobs are filled with precinct workers or their relatives, referred by Rep. Robert A. Brady, the city Democratic chairman, or Republican leader Michael Meehan.
Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said in an interview after a School Reform Commission meeting that the presence of BRT patronage workers on her payroll was "a very complicated political issue" that needed to be ironed out by the SRC and the mayor.
Ackerman said that in every city she had ever lived in, tax assessors were always paid by the municipal government.
"I've come to find that there's Philadelphia, and then there's other cities," she said.
The statements by Archie and Ackerman came on the same day that the Committee of Seventy, a civic watchdog, called for immediate changes to the BRT, including an end to the schools paying for patronage workers.
The committee said the time to push through changes was now, when public anger is fresh over the Inquirer series detailing the BRT's political hiring, private dealmaking, and mismanagement.
"There's probably more interest in changing this than anything I've seen in a long time," said Zack Stalberg, the committee's president, adding that the newspaper's reports had ignited widespread outrage - "even among the politicians."
The BRT is an independent agency run by a seven-member board appointed by city judges. Board members have long been political insiders.
The agency sets the taxable values of all properties in Philadelphia. Its assessments are among the most unfair and incomprehensible in the nation.
Kevin Feeley, a BRT spokesman, said the agency was open to change and had already made significant progress toward making assessments fair and honest with its proposed set of "full value" assessments, released two weeks ago.
Stalberg, though, said the BRT had to fix itself first.
"We don't see how the new assessments can be trusted unless the public begins to believe in the BRT," he said.
Changing the structure of the BRT would require a charter amendment, approved by city voters.
Stalberg said City Council President Anna Verna should convene a rare summer Council session and put the measure on ballot in November.
Otherwise, he said, it will take another year. "The city cannot gamble that the political will for change will last that long," he said.
Archie said he would begin discussions with city leaders to work out the details of how to reorganize the BRT. The proposed cost in the 2010 schools budget is $4.5 million.
His statement was applauded by Helen Gym, a schools advocate who has been attacking the BRT patronage arrangement in letters and on her blog.
Also yesterday, J. Shane Creamer, executive director of the city Ethics Board, asked for a legal opinion about whether the school workers are really exempt from the political activity ban, since they're working for the BRT, a city agency.
In the meantime, besides ending the school-funded patronage, the Committee of Seventy proposed other ways that the BRT and others could act now to "rebuild public trust" in the agency:
Install a new executive director. The current one, Enrico Foglia, is a former committeeman from Brady's ward who isn't trained in tax assessments.
Enact a strong conflict-of-interest policy. Unlike agencies in other cities, the BRT allows its assessors to moonlight as private appraisers - a practice that BRT officials acknowledge can lead to conflicts of interest.
Follow the state Sunshine Law. The Inquirer found that the BRT has routinely ignored that law and made decisions in private.
Require the Board of Judges to enact a system of merit appointments to the BRT and the Board of View, which hears appeals in eminent domain cases, instead of allowing politics to dominate the process.
President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe said the notion that judges rely on the party machines to get elected was badly out of date.
But she said the judges would start talking about how to change a system that they didn't care for, either.
Read the "Tax Travesty" series and look up the new and current values for nearly any property in the city. Go to http://go.philly.com/brtEndText