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Council members question Ramos about seeking more state aid

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

Evening update: A huge crowd turned out at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church on Cheltenham Avenue this evening for a forum about the District budget and transformation plan. Three top officials – Pedro Ramos, Thomas Knudsen, and Penny Nixon – responded to pointed questions and concerns and heard speeches criticizing the plan. More details Wednesday.

Late afternoon update: School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos, under persistent questioning from City Councilman Bill Green on whether Ramos specifically asked the Corbett administration for more revenue, said that both the state and local systems for funding education are "broken."

But Ramos didn’t put a number on any request from the SRC to the governor for additional funds to help close the gap of more than $200 million expected in 2012-13, which is partly the result of a sharp drop in state aid this year.

"We’ve asked the governor for support … including relief on the expense side that can be as great or greater than $94 million on the revenue side," said Ramos, speaking of help with pension obligations. "We are asking the governor to work with the SRC on fiscal sustainability, but this can’t be done in quick sound bites.

"We’re working through two systems that are broken….that’s why we’re here."

Green and other Council members said that Ramos and Feather Houstoun, as Corbett appointees, should have leverage to ask for more state aid.

"He is your appointing authority," Green said.

Councilman Wilson Goode suggested that it might be time for a return to a mayorally appointed board of education if the state was not willing to step up in a funding crisis.

And Councilman Jim Kenney asked whether Council would get a chance to interview prospective superintendent candidates. Ramos said yes.

"I hate to provide all these resources and then go down the road we just went down," Kenney said, speaking of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. "I’m just asking for a chance to get a feel for the person."

SRC member Lorene Cary talked about plans to improve school climate by focusing on prevention.

Cary called children "exquisite" and said the key to improving their behavior is for adults to change their behavior.

"There are very few incorrigible children," she said. She called practices that lead to high numbers of expulsions and "pushout" to discipline schools "deeply disrespectful."

Cary got some pushback from Councilmen Darrell Clarke, Curtis Jones, and Kenyatta Johnson, who recounted their own experiences in school. Jones talked about a classmate named Ray-Ray who was the bane of his existence.

"When he was sent to Catto [a discipline school], it was the happiest day of our lives," Jones said.

Cary said that there would be a three-day summer institute for principals and one day for teachers to learn about best practices in improving school climate, including such approaches as Positive Behavior Supports.


Morning and early afternoon update:

Ramos: Reorganization proposal not a ‘done deal’

School Reform Commission Chair Pedro Ramos told City Council on Tuesday that the reorganization plan calling for 40 school closures next year and reorganizing schools into achievement networks is not a ”done deal."

Nor, he said is it a "mask for privatization of our system" or ideologically "pro-charter."

At the same time, Ramos reiterated that school closings are "long overdue" and that the School District needs to become more responsive.

"The system we have is not responsible or effective in meeting the real-time, real-world need for quality education for all kids," he said.

A budget and five-year financial plan forecasting that charter schools will ultimately educate 40 percent of the city’s public school students "are not prescribing an outcome, merely forecasting realistically," Ramos said.

Achievement networks of 20 to 30 schools, he said, represent an effort to move from an "inflexible bureaucracy" to a "performance-based service model that is accountable to not just the superintendent, but to the schools it is supposed to serve."

He said that "we know that we have much more work to do to define how this should function – work that can only be done in partnership with the community." He later added that the District wants to get feedback from principals on how best to support schools.

Ramos, as a prelude for asking Council to approve a property reassessment change that would bring $94 million to the School District, said that the reorganization plan "is a proposal only, open to be changed." Through public meetings, he said, "the SRC will continue to make the voice of the community an important influence over our decisions."

City Council President Darrell Clarke pressed Ramos about why the SRC assumed $94 million would come from City Council while not assuming more money from the state. He and other council members wanted to know what the SRC is doing to get more state dollars.

Ramos said that the District’s "advocacy effort will continue and we’ll continue to figure out every place they can help us," but for planning purposes, the $94 million was included because the mayor has asked for it.

Councilman Bill Green wanted an unequivocal answer that the additional investment and planned reorganization would result in "better outcomes for children."

Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon said she couldn’t do that until the plan was complete.

"So you are asking us to invest in something you can’t clearly say will improve outcomes for children," Green countered.

Ramos interjected that the SRC is asking for help getting through the next fiscal year and that "what’s clear is that not doing it makes it worse."

He added, "We are in a time-sensitive battle here for the future of the city and the future of the schools."

As the afternoon drew on, Council members got more specific in asking about the District’s borrowing capacity.

Councilman Mark Squilla asked Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen whether the District thinks it could borrow more money than the $218 million that is now on the table to balance the 2012-13 budget. Squilla wants to put off for a year the tax reassessment plan that the District is counting on for $94 million in extra revenue.

Knudsen responded: "I think the capacity is there for that, not sure how much beyond that. That’s what we’re struggling with now."

Knudsen and Ramos said that the markets are mostly concerned about the system’s long-term fiscal sustainability, which is why they need some assurances of a stable funding source.

City Council is continuing to ask questions, and the hearing will continue through the afternoon. Follow the #phillyeducation hash tag for reporting and reaction from the meeting.