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Turnstiles: Delayed approval not unusual

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

Last week, I wrote about how the District had spent a million dollars on turnstiles and miscellaneous security equipment. The authorizing resolution, which the SRC passed at its August meeting, came months after installation. Despite the delayed approval and exorbitant price tag, the resolution passed with no questions or debate.

The resolution was not unusual. At that very same meeting, the SRC approved at least another eight resolutions in which the projects appeared to be underway or had already been completed.

Since last week’s posting, I did a review of the past school year. The review revealed more than two dozen examples of this very un-public ratification “process.”

Among them:

  • In August 2009, the SRC approved $445,000 to contractors for overexpenditures on meals and cafeteria expenses for the previous school year which ended in June;
  • In January 2010, the SRC approved $176,400 for catering, balloons, and other “miscellaneous internal expenditures” for the Superintendent’s August 2009 Summer Leadership Institute;
  • In May 2010, the SRC finally got around to approving a one-year, $66,000 position at the Department of Health for food services inspections, which had a start date of July 1, 2009; and
  • In June 2010, the SRC ratified a $200,000 contract with Aon Consulting to help negotiate health and welfare benefits even though the contract ran from Sept. 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010.

In a couple of cases, the resolution appeared to disguise the fact that it wasn’t approved on time. In May 2010, the SRC approved a $50,000 contract for a consultant to do anti-violence work at South Philadelphia High School. The contract was for the time period from June to September 2010 when school was not in session; furthermore, the contractor had been publicly active at the school throughout the spring.

All of this certainly raises eyebrows about the public role of the SRC and its oversight and decision-making within the District. As I mentioned in my earlier post last week, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which provides training for school boards across the state, believes that "ratifying" resolutions – those that are merely perfunctory sign-offs – should be reserved for cases of emergency.

“The reality is that all decisions have to be made in public, and the Sunshine Law lays that out very clearly," said Pamela Price, director of PSBA’s board development services. "Decisions can’t just be made behind closed doors.”

Through the District communications office, the School Reform Commission issued a statement saying that ratifying resolutions were “rare exceptions” and “occur as a result of an immediate need to move forward with services and resources for schools.”

It’s hard to look at a review of the year and say the resolutions are rare. Of the last 12 SRC meetings, all but three contained ratifying resolutions. The nine resolutions in August made up almost 15 percent of the 68 contract-related resolutions (not counting student expulsions, school closings, or grant acceptances) for the month.

Furthermore, since when are turnstiles at 440 an “immediate need?" If the resolutions are so urgent, then why are so many approved months after the fact rather than hastened onto an agenda?

When the SRC ratifies resolutions, it denies public input and discussion about the best uses of money, especially given the District’s unstable financial future. In other cases, it’s clear that the District is going ahead with spending without the SRC’s approval. No one wants to micromanage, but, let’s think about this. A million dollars for turnstiles, card readers, and call boxes at 440? $176,000 for catering, balloons and "miscellaneous expenditures" for the superintendent’s leadership institute? Almost half a million in cost overruns in food services? Those are worth a question or two.

The District is fond of saying that its decisions are “budget-neutral.” But what we know is that the resources in our schools are both precious and discretionary. It takes prioritizing and careful planning to ensure that our schools get not just what they need but what they deserve.

When we see the District’s highest oversight and management body rubber stamping expenses after the fact and being left out of the loop on a series of District decisions, its alarming for those of us who have learned through experience that it’s our children who often pay the price.

The following response came from the District communications office:

Statement Regarding the Ratification of Resolutions by the SRC “There are occasions when the School Reform Commission is asked to ratify resolutions after projects have begun or grants have already been accepted. These are rare exceptions of the hundreds of regular resolutions that come before the Commission during a fiscal year. These exceptions typically occur as a result of an immediate need to move forward with services and resources for schools. It is important to note that the School District competitively bids large dollar amount contracts, which allows the District to go through a formal process for acquiring goods and services. The Commission is fully aware and takes seriously its duty to manage the investment of taxpayers’ dollars in a way that is open and transparent."

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