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District considers adding position to improve ethics

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

The School District is preparing to create a senior-level staff position – potentially modeled on the city’s chief integrity officer – to implement recommendations from an outside task force that found flaws with the District’s ethics practices.

In a report produced in December 2012 under the auspices of the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, this task force strongly urged the District to hire a point person for ethics issues. Fourteen months later, the findings and recommendations were finally discussed by the School Reform Commission in February.

The task force, headed by Common Pleas Court Judge Ida Chen, said the District does not do enough to train employees or clarify and enforce its ethics policies – and found “there is insufficient emphasis on transparency.”

Former SRC Chair Pedro Ramos requested the review when he took office in 2011, just after a city ethics report slammed improprieties by former SRC Chair Robert Archie and State Rep. Dwight Evans over a management contract for Martin Luther King High School.

The task force report cites “a tangled briar patch” of ethics rules, which “makes it difficult to obtain clarity about the ethical obligations of District personnel.”

The report also expresses concern that due to budget cuts, “auditing and compliance staff at all levels has been sharply reduced, even as the number of contracts has increased.” It says that amid fiscal austerity, “it is tempting to skimp on oversight. … But in reality, tough times require heightened diligence.”

The task force found “no evidence of widespread unethical behavior among District personnel.”

“The main point here is that ethics is not an afterthought,” said Ellen Mattleman Kaplan of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy. “It can’t stand back and wait for other things to get resolved. … Ethics has to be woven into everything you do because there are ethical issues that come up day after day after day.”

Kaplan said her organization is encouraged by Superintendent William Hite’s commitment to implementing the recommendations. “We’re also pleased that the School District is taking steps to hire a chief integrity officer to strengthen the administration and enforcement of ethics rules.”

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