ABOVE PHOTO: Teachers and their supporters protest planned layoffs outside the School District of Philadelphia administration building, June 2011.
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
To better understand what’s going on between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the School District of Philadelphia, it helps to understand The Politics of Toys.
By Denise Clay
I’ve been trying to figure out lately why the shenanigans going on in the School District of Philadelphia feel so familiar to me.
I think that it’s because I understand the Politics of Toys.
For those of you who don’t know, if you have a student in a School District of Philadelphia school, he or she might not be going back to class on Sept. 9 as scheduled because Superintendent William Hite has said that if he doesn’t get $50 million from the Commonwealth, the City, or someone by Aug. 16, he’s not going to have enough money to open the schools safely.
You see, he laid off nearly 4,000 people, including school counselors, assistant principals and other support personnel, to close a $370 million gap in the district’s budget. Superintendent Hite says that he needs to bring some of those people back…about 1,000 of them.
Mayor Michael Nutter stepped in on Thursday and says he’ll get the $50 million that the district needs to open from his banker friends, but he doesn’t say how he’s going to pay this money back…or what we’re going to do next year.
City Council has also stepped in and says they’ll get the $50 million from the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development, purchase the School District’s vacant properties, and sell them at fair market rates…or as I like to call it, developing a whole lot of really nice luxury apartments that most Philadelphians won’t be able to afford to live in.
Now how does all of this slight of hand play into The Politics of Toys? Let me explain.
While I don’t have any kids myself, I’m the proud auntie of seven and have about 13 great-nieces and nephews that I feel kind of responsible for.
Because of this, I’ve had to learn The Politics of Toys.
Under the Politics of Toys, there are some toys that any kid that happens into the room can pick up and play with at will. Most of the time, the kid who’s hosting the play date puts the toys out the kids get to pick out what they want to play with and a good time is had by all.
Because newer toys are, well, new, everyone tends to want to play with them. But there are also older toys that are special and beloved so they’re also going to get some attention.
Most of my nieces and nephews were really good and respectful of their toys, old or new. They knew that in order to get more toys from their aunts and uncles, especially their Uncle Dennis, they had to show that they could take good care of what they had.
But occasionally, the kids would go on play dates with friends who had so many toys that the Politics of Toys were a little different. They’d play with a toy so harshly that it was almost broken. However, when one of the other kids would want to play with said toy in the way it which was meant to be enjoyed, the owner of the toy, the person mistreating it, would deny them the opportunity.
If by now you’ve figured out that the “toy” in this scenario is the School District of Philadelphia, the “kid who doesn’t know how to play with their toys” is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the “kid who wants the chance to play with the toy” represents the parents of the School District, you’re right.
Since 2003, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has been the group in charge of the School District of Philadelphia. It took control of the district away from the City during Mayor John Street’s administration because the Commonwealth believed that it could manage it better than City officials could.
(My guess is that former Superintendent David Hornbeck going to Harrisburg and calling the legislature racist every year for withholding funds from the School District connected to the City that pretty much pays the Commonwealth’s bills every year played some part in that decision.)
In any case, the “toy” that is the School District was handed to the Commonwealth and everyone hoped that it would “play” with it right.
It started off okay. Paul Vallas, the district’s first CEO was a decent guy. Made some reforms. Some things worked out. Test scores went up.
But he left us in a $75 million hole. So did the late Arlene Ackerman. In fact, every CEO that the Commonwealth has found for the district has left us in a budgetary hole…the biggest being the $300 million hole that Hite seems to have us in.
Now instead of repairing the “toy”, the Commonwealth wants to break it even further.
The District asked for $180 million in additional funds. The Commonwealth gave it $2 million…and then said that it could have $45 million…but only if it convinced the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the union that governs the lowest paid (and most endangered) teachers in the Commonwealth, to take $133 million in concessions in the name of, and here’s that word again, reform.
Now you know why City Council and the Mayor are doing their best Houdini imitations…
District parents have called for a boycott of the schools until the $180 million comes in from the Commonwealth.
But considering that the original idea for the school takeover was to give the schools to a for-profit company, I’m sure that the Commonwealth isn’t listening.
Now as someone who’s been watching the Commonwealth break it’s School District “toy” in so many ways it disgusts me as a taxpayer, I’ve thought about what a solution would look like.
But while Mayor Nutter can go ask his banker friends for a loan that he hasn’t figured out how to pay back yet, and City Council is playing Donald Trump with School District properties, neither will do the one thing that could solve this situation.
Go to court. Now.
What this situation needs is a good federal lawsuit demanding that control of the School District of Philadelphia be returned to the city.
Now I know that’s a lot to ask for, especially since there appears to be no political will on anyone’s part to actually do this.
But maybe that needs to be a question that’s put to anyone who wants to be Mayor of Philadelphia in 2015. If you’re a School District of Philadelphia parent and you’re tired of this, you should be in the face of anyone who’s even thinking about running for Mayor, saying “I want my district back…and if you want my vote, you’ll get it for me!”
Don’t stop there, though.
Folks will be rolling through Philly in 2014 stumping for Gubernatorial race votes. This is where you REALLY need to be active. Gov. Tom Corbett has been kicking the “toy” so hard that he really needs to be put in time-out for his abuse. Since we’re still stupid enough to be financing the Commonwealth with our tax dollars, get in the face of the Gubernatorial candidates and say, “The Commonwealth’s School Districts need proper financing. If you want my vote, you’ll tell the Marcellus Shale drillers that their free ride is over and it’s time to pay their share in taxes so the schools can survive!”
I understand that being politically active is a lot of work for people who are raising kids, but let’s keep it real folks. All that 10 years of being under Commonwealth control has shown us is that the Commonwealth can’t manage our schools any better than it thought we could. We have a new (and larger) deficit every year. About 50 schools have been closed in the district over the last two years. Morale is in the toilet, and the schools are getting worse.
It’s time to give the toy back to the people who care about it; the ones that want to see it fixed; the ones who want to play with it constructively.
And it’s time to put the current owners in time out for abuse and neglect.
Only you can do that folks.
Otherwise, this “toy” will be broken beyond repair.
And that’s a consequence of the Politics of Toys that we can’t afford to allow to happen.