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The BRT and Your School District Dollars NOT at work

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

If you haven’t read the Inquirer’s unfolding saga of corruption at the Bureau of Revision of Taxes (BRT), check it out here.

Why should parents care about patronage and corruption at this city agency? For starters, almost 40% of the BRT employees sit on the School District’s payroll. To clarify: that’s between 78-85 employees, neither hired nor supervised by the District, working off-site, many of whom hold political positions that would not be permissible by city ethics laws, and complicit in an agency that seems to be rife with political favoritism – all the while, costing the District around $4 million a year.

As I reported earlier at the Notebook, for the past year Parents United for Public Education has been leading a charge to challenge these hires. We did so primarily to bring attention to funding for schools and the needs we faced – whether it was more librarians, reduced class sizes, high school reform plans for the schools in greatest distress, or healthy lunches. We wrote to the BRT (Chair Charlesretta Meade referred us back to the School District), talked to city officials and various state agencies, reached out to media, and testified about the issue as frequently as we could.

We’re happy to report that in today’s Inquirer story Mayor Michael Nutter weighed in favorably for the first time on the issue:

Certainly, he said, it’s time to stop using school money to pay BRT clerical workers.

"The only people who should be on the school district payroll should be involved in educating children," Nutter said.

Less settling was the accusation from two former CEOs that the School Reform Commission was complicit in keeping BRT members on the payroll.

Although the District has been fighting on and off with the BRT for decades, it was former CEO Paul Vallas who most recently went after the BRT salaries and also raised questions about 30-some employees from the City Controller’s office on the District payroll. CEO Tom Brady also took up the call to end the BRT patronage.

According to reporters, both saw their efforts denied by their own bosses:

Tom Brady, Vallas’ successor, said he tried to cut the workers, too, despite warnings from his senior staff that it would never fly at the School Reform Commission, the state-controlled board that oversees city schools.

They were right, Brady said.

"It was not a battle worth fighting at the risk of losing the war," said Brady, now superintendent in Providence, R.I.

The story also reveals that former SRC Commissioner, Martin Bednarek, a staunch defender of the BRT employees, has himself earned over $160,000 in BRT consulting contracts.

As we begin to finalize the District’s budget, it seems compelling for the current SRC to tackle this issue head on. Given the past history of the previous CEOs, it’s not surprising that current Schools Chief Arlene Ackerman would choose to avoid comment in the media.

This SRC, however, cannot afford to.

More than ever the SRC needs to make a break from its politically beholden past and strike an independent agenda. Challenging the patronage jobs at the BRT would be a start. Making clear any and all conflicts of interest would be an even better result.

In either case, when it comes to this particular pot of $4 million, the issue for our city and school leadership won’t be a lack of knowledge or a lack of citizen outrage or a sense of shame about the embarrassing antics of this agency. It will only be whether they have the will to face these things and do something to change them for the better.

For more information about Parents United for Public Education, go to http://parentsunitedphila.googlepages.com.

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