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Legal or not – Do BRT payments violate the law?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s a question that Parents United for Public Education, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and the Education Law Center are considering right now.

At issue is this section of state law, 72 PS 5341.21, which states that responsibility for the expenses of the BRT lies with the county:

§ 5341.21. All salaries provided for in this act and the proper expenses of the board shall be paid out of the treasury of the county.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said they aren’t aware of any other county in the state which charged a school district for property tax assessments. Why us?

Yesterday, the School District of Philadelphia’s sunset provision on payment for 80-some employees of the BRT expired. The District said it had hoped that City Council and the Mayor would address the issue of the School District payments – particularly in light of a devastating budget shortfall. But the summer found the Mayor dealing with a near catastrophic Plan C and Council? . . . well, Council wasn’t exactly in City Hall.

Now the District’s been told to continue BRT payments until the Mayor’s Task Force issues its analysis of the situation. Unfortunately, based on their draft report, the Task Force dialogue isn’t particularly inspiring.

Weighing the reality of an underfunded district with perceptions of the BRT as “patronage hires who do not add value” against the concern that these employees might not “test into the Civil Service” just doesn’t engender a whole lotta confidence that we’re operating under a common sense of priorities.

The Mayor, according to some, is dragging his heels.

Meanwhile, some Council members are making bizarre claims that the BRT is being scapegoated because they “don’t have the skills that are necessary to do the job correctly – and that’s through no fault of their own.” (City Councilman Frank DiCicco) Let me be clear about this: No one from Parents United has made any mention about terminating employment for BRT workers. Parents United has only requested that the BRT workers be placed on the City payroll where they belong.

So as we can see, this can go on forever and wander into petty accusations that serve only to divert attention away from the central issue at hand. At some point, someone’s got to be the one to say enough’s enough.

The District can start by taking the following actions:

  1. Request a sunset provision on the latest extension on the BRT payroll, no more than 60 days; and
  2. Exercise its right of contract oversight, including the power to audit the BRT, to ensure that funds are properly managed. In other words, treat the BRT no differently than it would another contract.

I don’t deny that the BRT issue has caught the attention of city and School District leaders. I have no doubt that there will be city efforts at reforming the agency and that plenty of lip service will seek to satisfy public discontent. The District ought to be commended for stating in no uncertain terms that they want the BRT workers off their payroll. Mayor Nutter too should be commended for saying that “the only people who should be on the School District payroll should be involved in educating children.”

But I also think that city leaders think it’s OK to have everything in a holding pattern while they deliberate on their plans – and that’s the problem.

First, why should the District be forced to carry the burden of an agency whose problems really aren’t the business of the District? It’s a city problem, not a kid problem. Second, while I believe Council and the Mayor want to reform the BRT I can’t tell whether they think that will take 2 months or a year. Considering Council exercised its right to a summer recess in the midst of the City’s worst crisis in years, it’s hard to tell what sense of urgency Council as a whole has about many things on the public’s mind. And even if Council and the Mayor’s office intend to act on reform, I don’t have confidence that they’re dialoguing about a coordinated approach – which is another set of political headaches that could delay reform efforts.

And unfortunately, when it comes to entrenched systems like the BRT, it’s hard to escape a certain amount of cynicism. The BRT issue has lingered for decades. We’ve recently seen other reform efforts – like the Philadelphia Parking Authority stall out despite public outcry.

So here’s our effort at a line in the sand. It’s time to take the BRT workers off the School District payroll, not somewhere in the undefinable future, but quickly, measurably, on deadline. And in the meantime, we’ll continue to explore whether taxpayers have a legal challenge to this practice.

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