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PSP director Gleason: Funding deal ‘not a perfect package’

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

Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership The Philadelphia School Partnership, an emerging major player in the local education landscape and frequently a lightning rod for controversy, played a significant role in Harrisburg in the frenzy to find a funding solution for the School District. It hired a politically connected lobbyist and pushed hard for strings to be attached to any additional revenue.

PSP executive director Mark Gleason said in an interview Wednesday that in his view, the deal, which is still not completely finalized, is "not a perfect package" but "a lot better than it could have been."

Gleason said that the package ultimately will bring the District $150 million in recurring money, or "80 to 85 percent of what the District was asking for," although he called the patchwork of funding sources "a Band-Aid."

"We got $150 million starting in year two, a little less in year one," he said.

He explained that starting in 2014-15, the District will get the full benefit of $120 million in annual sales tax revenue from the state’s decision to extend a 1 percent surcharge in Philadelphia. The state legislation sets aside an additional $15 million annually in proceeds from the surcharge starting in 2014 to pay back the $50 million that is to be advanced to the School District through borrowing this year.

He said that although PSP, like other advocates, favors a more reliable education funding formula than now exists, "it was clear this spring that was not achievable in the short term. It’s at least a two-year fight. But in every conversation I had about the package, I was clear that I believe we have to get beyond the Band-Aid financing to a more rational structure."

He also said that although the state funding system is lacking, "it’s also true that the city of Philadelphia prior to the coming year contributes significantly less to the School District than other large cities in America. So now, the city’s share is going to go up substantially."

Gleason confirmed that PSP had hired S.R. Wojdak & Associates, a longtime, influential Pennsylvania lobbying firm, to help press its case.

"With so much complexity surrounding school issues in Harrisburg, we engaged Wojdak this past month to advise us," he wrote in an email. "They have been terrific partners, helping us to understand legislative developments and to communicate PSP’s mission to people in the capital."

He said this lobbying expenditure represented a "small portion" of the organization’s funding.

The group’s investment in policy advocacy is "small in dollar and manpower terms," he said. The primary role of the organization continues to be increasing access to high-quality schools by "raising money, investing in schools." But PSP also wants to "make sure the conditions exist so great schools can grow and multiply."

PSP also paid for robo-calls over the weekend urging Philadelphia residents to contact their legislators to support the governor’s financial rescue plan. The message, from Mike Wang of PSP, said, "Gov. Corbett and the state legislature have come up with a way to provide new money to save our schools, but they need [your representative] to vote ‘yes’ today on the fiscal code and tax code." Among the state representatives whose districts were targeted for calls were James Roebuck, Jordan Harris, and Rosita Youngblood. Gleason said the calls were organized when it was clear on Saturday that the governor’s plan was in jeopardy of not passing the House.

Gleason would not talk specifically about the ramifications of the state’s decision to make the money conditional on "certification" from the state secretary of education that the District was meeting certain operational, educational and financial reforms. Such a provision is unprecedented in dispersing school aid and construed by many education advocates as anti-union.

But the specifics that PSP wanted were left out, including a virtual ban on using seniority in assigning and transferring teachers.

PSP had called for tying additional funding to the adoption of new rules for assigning, transferring, and laying off teachers, making site-selection mandatory for all jobs and giving principals more power to assemble their team. They also pushed for performance-based pay and adding an hour to the workday. Although the School Reform Commission and Superintendent William Hite did not publicly support such contingency wording, they have made it clear that they want signficant concessions from the unions regarding wages, benefits, and work rules.

"Our mission is to make sure that every student in Philadelphia has a great school to go to," said Gleason. "All through this, our focus has been on making sure the resources and conditions are available to help make schools in Philadelphia better."

Additional reporting by Paul Socolar.

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