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Helen Gym’s City Council testimony

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

I testified at the May 25 budget hearing for public comment. Here is the text of my remarks:

DATE: May 25, 2011
TO: Members of City Council
FROM: Helen Gym, on behalf of Parents United for Public Education
RE: City Council hearings on School District budget

My name is Helen Gym. I am a public school parent and a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, an all volunteer independent collective of parents working to put kids and classrooms first in school budgets. I want to thank those members of Council who recognize the deep commitment of our City to our public schools and who have asked pointed questions to ensure the financial and managerial stability of billions of dollars of public money.

Parents United for Public Education absolutely opposes Governor’s Corbett’s budget which cuts more than a billion dollars from education and fails to uphold the state education funding formula. But let’s be honest. The state’s actions only account for little more than $100 million of a $629 million District deficit. We need to talk a bit today about our own house.

Parents United along with other groups has been at the forefront in asking for local funding accountability from the city. It’s our request that Council restore the 60% ratio that communities advocated for in 2007 through a millage shift, and that Council uses its leverage to ensure it goes to targeted areas. In particular, we’ve delivered to City Council members a petition around restoring free transportation to all Philadelphia public, private and parochial school students. More than 1,000 people from every single zip code in this city have signed the petition along with heartfelt stories of their own struggles to manage family, finances and their responsibilities as parents.

Every budget crisis is terrible, but in any budget crisis, priorities must be established, made transparent and clear, and we must uphold our commitment to them. Ours are clear:

  1. Ensure full-day kindergarten.
  2. Restore free transportation for all school-age students.
  3. Restore the 29% cut in each school’s discretionary funds, which will allow each school to individually weather the current budget crisis. This is an area that has not been discussed enough in Council.

As strong as we’ve been about the financial responsibility of our city, I want to make one thing clear. NO ONE wants to see a blank check bailout for an administration that has failed to commit to established priorities and refused to change its spending practices or financial oversight. NO blank check bailout for the District. We want strings attached.

I’ve been routinely frustrated at the months of District hearings I’ve attended, pages and pages of powerpoints we’ve seen, that have yielded lots of information but surprisingly little clarity. So instead I’ve gone through the District’s 500-page budget book and made a FOIA request for 22 pages of more than a billion dollars worth of contracts approved so far in FY2011. And there are plenty of questions Council needs to ask that just isn’t showing up on the power points.

  • Like why the SRC last week approved $4.7 million in textbooks for an 18-day summer school program?
  • Like if full day kindergarten is on the chopping block, why are there nine people at District headquarters who earn salaries comparable to or higher than the Mayor of our city?
  • Like why new District offices like an office of non-instructional support were supposedly created and other offices dramatically expanded this year, including communications and the superintendent’s office?
  • Consider: The Associate Superintendent’s office went from 50 positions in FY10 to 90 positions this year. A 45% budget cut in the number of positions this year from last year masks the fact that the office has increased its costs by $300,000 from FY10.
  • Consider the CFO’s office: 84 positions in FY10, 108 in FY11. A 40% proposed cut to the office actually translates into a 20% cut from FY10.

Now I know some Council people feel they are not educators, but this is so far beyond that claim. Increasingly it’s felt like the District has unfairly put up essential services in order to evade necessary questions about their priorities, spending practices and lack of financial oversight.

We want money to go to our schools of course. We want the city to maintain its commitment because we need to go to Harrisburg and because it’s the right thing to do at this time. But we don’t need a blank check bailout for an administration which has shown time and time again its refusal to invest in essential areas. Instead, teachers, arts/music, and valuable programs like accelerated schools are manipulated like political footballs in the name of the children – and I’m tired of it. Because this is a system with $3 billion and we can’t ensure full-day kindergarten? Because this is the second time in five years we’ve seen a financial meltdown from the District.

So if we’re going to give any money, there must be strings attached. I’ll start with my list:

  1. Place the District under the auspices of PICA: This year to year gaming of numbers has to end. PICA will force the District to adopt a five year plan with responsible revenue options.
  2. Demand a moratorium on all non-essential contracts: The District has spent more than a billion dollars so far this year with contracted vendors. Even since announcing an unprecedented crisis, the SRC has approved millions in questionable contract resolutions from starting up brand new programs and initiatives to hundreds of thousands in consulting contracts.
  3. Enact competitive bidding on the $200 million in professional services contracts.
  4. Tell the District to go back to the drawing board, ensure essential services first, bring down executive salaries, then come back to City Council with a real figure and a real cut list of options.
  5. Use your leverage and demand a change in the leadership of the School Reform Commission. This is a body that sat here last year promising you a balanced budget, that didn’t even announce a crisis until January of this year, and has still failed to curb unnecessary contracts and expenses.

I was at Furness High School yesterday for their National Honor Society Induction, a wonderful ceremony for a small school. That school is losing $1.4 million from its budget, and 17 personnel from a 600-student school including the school’s music teacher and choir director.

Furness High School is why these questions need to be asked, and why we need better answers than the ones we’re being given. If the public is being asked to turn over more money to our schools then we do have a responsibility to know whether we’re simply providing cover for poor spending practices and priorities or whether this additional money is really “for the children.”

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