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The SRC and the million-dollar turnstiles

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

Update: Read Helen’s op-ed in the Daily News and her follow-up here at the Notebook.

What would you buy for a million dollars worth of school money? Some modernized classrooms, you say? Noontime aides and community liaisons to replace the ones the District laid off at the beginning of the summer, perhaps?

How about a handful of turnstiles at District headquarters?

Last week, the School Reform Commission ratified Resolution A-28, a contract amendment with Elliott-Lewis Corporation for $1,006,959.43 for installation of security turnstiles. You can see those million dollar beauties above.

It’s hard to imagine not only the million-dollar public cost of the turnstiles but why they’re even needed when security guards at both entrances check visitors.

But perhaps what’s most galling is that the SRC public resolution was passed after the turnstiles were installed at the beginning of the summer.

Zack Stalberg, head of the Committee of Seventy, said the SRC’s behavior is “neither normal nor appropriate.”

“Our view is that the public business should be done in public,” Stalberg said. “It appears that this decision was made privately and ratified in public.”

According to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, approving public resolutions after the fact is not normal protocol, although there may be exceptions in cases of emergency. Such decisions, however, should be reserved for rare purposes, said Pamela Price, director of PSBA’s board development services.

“It’s our position that it is the board that makes the decisions – the school board is the governing body for the district,” said Price, who conducts trainings for school boards across the state on behalf of PSBA.

Price noted that budgeting and public input are just two of many reasons why boards need discussion before taking action. School boards need to make sure an item has been appropriately budgeted. The public also plays a role.

“An important part of the decision-making process is public input and allowing the public the opportunity to comment on decisions made by the school board,” Price said.

The SRC’s million-dollar turnstile resolution is only the latest example of the SRC as a poorly managed entity. It has frequently flouted publicly held standards about an open and transparent process. It meets for hours behind closed doors. Since the departure of spirited commissioner Heidi Ramirez last summer, any level of substantive public discussion at an SRC meeting is a rare sighting.

In the case of the million-dollar turnstiles, the District actually went ahead with something before the expense had even been approved by the SRC.

It gives new meaning to the idea of moot decisionmaking.

And it wasn’t even the only example of after-the-fact decision-making at the SRC’s August 25 meeting. Another resolution, B-37, authorized a $41,000 contract with Murphy Transportation for transport and storage work that the resolution says was done in July.

Price said that a major component of the PSBA’s school board trainings is the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law.

“The reality is that all decisions have to be made in public, and the Sunshine Law lays that out very clearly,” Price said. “Decisions can’t just be made behind closed doors.”

Price said that in her experience, most school boards “have a very good handle” on what the Sunshine Law requires. For PSBA, making public decisions public is not a big issue statewide.

But for Philadelphians, the million-dollar turnstiles are just the latest symbol of a flawed and troubling SRC process.

Editors’ note: Our blogger requested comment on the turnstile issue from the School District prior to publication but did not receive a response. After publication, the Notebook received the following clarification from the School District:

The total figure of $1 million that is in SRC Resolution A-28 is for the cost of a new security turnstiles system and the installation of emergency call boxes and security card readers at each one of the six emergency exit stair towers.

The actual cost of the security turnstiles is $390,000. The balance is the cost of the life and safety equipment in the six emergency exit stair towers.

It is important to note that the turnstiles were always a part of the building design for the Education Center but the District held off on implementation of this building component until the School District had balanced its budget and returned to fiscal stability.

The entrance foyer at the Ed Center was built in such a way that our security staff cannot effectively control access to the building without the presence of the turnstiles. The space is just too wide and open. The reason it is so wide and open is because the turnstiles were part of the design.

A District spokesperson confirmed the that the turnstiles were installed long before the resolution was voted on.

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