reports from a local parent monitoring public education in New Orleans

Attachment to Education Testimony

Amelia Lafont, Orleans Parish public schools parent
PO Box 51153, New Orleans, LA 70119

Attachment To Written Testimony
Regarding Education Matters:

On The Current Condition Of Education
In New Orleans

Louisiana House Education Committee

Submitted May 1, 2008

posted by Michael Homan Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Nothing Fishy Here, Just More Red Dots for Bingler

Steven Bingler’s company, Concordia, will be receiving $3.8 million to plan for the rebuilding of public schools. Hopefully they’ll bring in the same type of community involvement they did with the Unified New Orleans Plan, and we’ll get to stick red dots on a map to show where we live, and then go home. If we as a community can put more red dots in Mid-City, we just might get a better school. Thanks for listening. I would only have charged $2.8 million for that type of community involvement, but of course the bids will never be released to the public. I wonder just what it would take for Concordia to read the recovery plan crafted by the people who live in Mid-City?

So Much for the RSD Master Plan

December 12th, 2007
Matt McBride
“ …That’s 25 schools to be taken down with hardly any public notice. One would think demolition of 25 schools would be important to a Master Planning effort.

I can’t find any evidence that the RSD master planning effort has moved past the first public meeting. Here’s the website meant to keep citizens informed (it supposedly launched November 5):

It hasn’t been updated since the announcement of the first meeting on November 17th. It says “Full Web Site Coming Soon.” “

Have You Heard the Latest Joke In Civic Participation? Planning the Future of School Facilities as They Are Demolished

February 19th, 2008
Alan Gutierrez

We’ve been receiving email notifications from the School Facilities Master Plan. As our intrepid fellow citizen reporter, Matt McBride told us So much for the RSD master plan:

‘As I mentioned in my Monday email, the state-run Recovery School District has been pulling demolition permits for schools all over town. This is not entirely news.

What is news is that they are supposed to be engaging in a Master Planning process involving the public simultaneously. Tell me, how can the RSD engage the public in a plan if they’re not telling the public what’s going on?’

We’re supposed to be filling out unscientific surveys, categorizing ourselves as parents or advocates, and sitting through visualization exercises. Through this guided meditation, we’re supposed to determine the future of the public school facilities in the City of New Orleans.

This is feel-good civic participation that has nothing to do with bricks and mortar… Read through the experience of Bart Everson in his post So dark the con of man:

‘ We did some kind of silly exercise that involved talking to other people at our table about what we hoped the schools would be like in ten years. Then we were instructed to imagine a visitor coming to the future New Orleans and checking out the schools and being very impressed. As they leave the city, what’s their overall impression of the schools? We discussed this with the people at our table.
Then Steve Bingler got up and made a presentation. In 2006 Bingler was the target of many a blogger’s wrath — or at least skepticism. He derided the old “factory school” model and hyped a new model which combines public amenities with schools.

Then we all answered multiple-choice questions on a form, while discussing them with our group. The questions were phrased in such a way as to be extremely leading.’

While we’re subjected to yet another humiliating civic participation process purported to be citizen input on New Orleans public school facilities, the Recovery School District has spent the last two months pushing to demolish 27 facilities.

Three of these facilities are on the “K-8 School Planning Area B” meeting agenda tonight. Those are Hardin, Shaw and Lockett elementary schools. When you attend tonights meeting, you’ll be asked to sit at a table representing the facility that is most interesting to you. You’ll be invited to imagine the future of the facility.

You will not be told that the RSD already has a demolition permit for the facility of your imagination.

Is it all imagination? Are we asked to look at and review the actual facilities? Some of them are structures rich in the history of New Orleans and African-American history, or are we simply going to share our feelings?

Mrs. Aletha Davis Duncan says in the comments of Matt McBride’s Recovery School District demolition post…

‘RSD has completely ignored the history of our schools and are taking the easy way out, “tear them down” and to hell with the people who once went there and their feelings about their neighborhood schools…

I thought smaller class sizes (should be)was an important issue. Tearing down these schools will cause the new schools to take on a larger population – larger class sizes and back to the problem of teachers not being able to reach/teach effectively…

I oppose the demolition of Johnson C. Lockett and Valena C. Jones because of their historical significance to the neighborhoods in which they are located.’

Oh, why does it matter? It’s obvious that our input into the future of these public buildings on public land are not important to the RSD. They are eager to raze building and close schools.

Why do they bother with the pretense of civic participation? Because they are required to and because it actually makes it easier down the road to show people the sign in sheets and say, yes the wholesale demolition of New Orleans Public Schools is just what these people wanted.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 19th, 2008 at 12:27 pm and is filed under Think New Orleans.

May 2008 Bywater News about plans to close Douglass

High School Closing?

After 68 years on St. Claude Avenue, Frederick Douglass High School (formerly Nicholls) may soon be empty. The Recovery School District’s Master Plan, to be revealed at the end of May, calls for the building’s closure, although the school itself would be recreated as a Public Safety Academy, holding its first classes in portable units located in the lower ninth ward. The school’s principal announced these changes at a hastily called public meeting April 9, indicating that next year’s freshmen could be the first class to move into trailers and pursue the new curriculum.

But the more than 50 people who attended this meeting have a different idea of what the future should hold for Douglass and its students. Alumni, teachers, and neighborhood residents are meeting regularly in order to determine an alternate and brighter future for this Bywater landmark. Left out of the planning process (the consultant held only one public meeting for input), this dedicated group has already begun to collect signatures on a petition to keep Frederick Douglass High School open and improve its core curriculum.

The idea of a Police/Fire/Public Safety Academy was a shock to Coalition members, who had developed plans for a college prep/arts curriculum community school and presented these to both the former and current RSD superintendent Paul Vallas. Apparently these plans were either not presented to Concordia, the consultant on the Master Plan, or disregarded. The Public Safety idea has been credited to Mr. Vallas.

The planned closure of Douglass has been attributed to a $35 million repair estimate; yet other RSD schools with multi-million dollar price tags will be upgraded and remain open. At an April 14th status report to state schools superintendent Paul Pastorek, questions about the future of Douglass were not answered, and a vitriolic Vallas declared that it was all the community’s fault for doing nothing for 40 years.

On April 16 a meeting was held to strategize how to save our school, and another meeting is scheduled for April 29 at 6 p.m. at Douglass School. These meetings are leading up to a May 6 meeting with Paul Vallas, also at Douglass, at 4:30 p.m. To get involved please come to one or both of these meetings, or contact Ze’ daLuz at 947-8884. There are better solutions to the upgrades needed at Douglass than to close the school and have students placed in trailers in a poorly drained field! Let’s find those solutions and be proud of our school and our students.

Heralded Iraq Police Academy a ‘Disaster’

BAGHDAD, Sept. 27 — A $75 million project to build the largest police academy in Iraq has been so grossly mismanaged that the campus now poses health risks to recruits and might need to be partially demolished, U.S. investigators have found.

The Baghdad Police College, hailed as crucial to U.S. efforts to prepare Iraqis to take control of the country’s security, was so poorly constructed that feces and urine rained from the ceilings in student barracks. Floors heaved inches off the ground and cracked apart. Water dripped so profusely in one room that it was dubbed “the rain forest.”
“This is the most essential civil security project in the country — and it’s a failure,” said Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, an independent office created by Congress. “The Baghdad police academy is a disaster.”

… Even in a $21 billion reconstruction effort that has been marred by cases of corruption and fraud, failures in training and housing Iraq’s security forces are particularly significant because of their effect on what the U.S. military has called its primary mission here: to prepare Iraqi police and soldiers so that Americans can depart.

Federal investigators said the inspector general’s findings raise serious questions about whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed to exercise effective oversight over the Baghdad Police College or reconstruction programs across Iraq, despite charging taxpayers management fees of at least 4.5 percent of total project costs. The Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that it has initiated a wide-ranging investigation of the police academy project.

The report serves as the latest indictment of Parsons Corp., the U.S. construction giant that was awarded about $1 billion for a variety of reconstruction projects across Iraq. After chronicling previous Parsons failures to properly build health clinics, prisons and hospitals, Bowen said he now plans to conduct an audit of every Parsons project.

“The truth needs to be told about what we didn’t get for our dollar from Parsons,” Bowen said. A spokeswoman for Parsons said the company had not seen the inspector general’s report.

The Coalition Provisional Authority hired Parsons in 2004 to transform the Baghdad Police College, a ramshackle collection of 1930s buildings, into a modern facility whose training capacity would expand from 1,500 recruits to at least 4,000. The contract called for the firm to remake the campus by building, among other things, eight three-story student barracks, classroom buildings and a central laundry facility…Complaints about the new facilities, however, began pouring in two weeks after the recruits arrived at the end of May, a Corps of Engineers official said…The most serious problem was substandard plumbing that caused waste from toilets on the second and third floors to cascade throughout the building. A light fixture in one room stopped working because it was filled with urine and fecal matter. The waste threatened the integrity of load-bearing slabs, federal investigators concluded.
The Baghdad Police College was built so poorly that feces and urine trickle from the ceilings, and floors rise inches off the ground and crack apart.

“When we walked down the halls, the Iraqis came running up and said, ‘Please help us. Please do something about this,’ ” Bowen recalled.
Phillip A. Galeoto, director of the Baghdad Police College, wrote an Aug. 16 memo that catalogued at least 20 problems: shower and bathroom fixtures that leaked from the first day of occupancy, concrete and tile floors that heaved more than two inches off the ground, water rushing down hallways and stairwells because of improper slopes or drains in bathrooms, classroom buildings with foundation problems that caused structures to sink. Galeoto noted that one entire building and five floors in others had to be shuttered for repairs, limiting the capacity of the college by up to 800 recruits. His memo, too, pointed out that the urine and feces flowed throughout the building and, sometimes, onto occupants of the barracks. “This is not a complete list,” he wrote, but rather a snapshot of “issues we are confronted with on a daily basis (as recent as the last hour) by the incomplete and/or poor work left behind by these builders.”

The Parsons contract, which eventually totaled at least $75 million, was terminated May 31 “due to cost overruns, schedule slippage, and sub-standard quality,” according to a Sept. 4 internal military memo. But rather than fire the Pasadena, Calif.-based company for cause, the contract was halted for “the government’s convenience.” …Federal investigators who visited the academy last week, though, expressed concerns about the structural integrity of the buildings and worries that fecal residue could cause a typhoid outbreak or other health crisis.

“They may have to demolish everything they built,” said Robert DeShurley, a senior engineer with the inspector general’s office. “The buildings are falling down as they sit.”

Inside the inspector general’s office in Baghdad on a recent blistering afternoon, several federal investigators expressed amazement that such construction blunders could be concentrated in one project. Even in Iraq, they said, failure on this magnitude is unusual. When asked how the problems at the police college compared with other projects they had inspected, the answers came swiftly.

“This is significant,” said Jon E. Novak, a senior adviser in the office.

“It’s catastrophic,” DeShurley added. Bowen said: “It’s the worst.”

From Amy Lafont, New Orleans public school parent

Notes on Bingler litigation history research:

“In September 2007 I testified at the BESE committee meeting in New Orleans at UNO. I related my experiences with Dr. Jarvis, UNOP and the recovery planning processes. I expressed concerns about apparent bid-rigging between Dr. Jarvis and Steve Bingler in late 2006 and early 2007, in reported weekly non-public meetings while Dr. Jarvis refused to be accessible to communities for planning, and Bingler subsequently received a $3.8 million contract to design master plans for N.O. schools only months later. There were many, many problems with the $10 million UNOP process Mr. Bingler led, including the lack of inclusion of specific information in the Citywide reports, the recommendations for multiple future planning processes, and the lack of specific information and decision making about public facilities needed for direction in the recovery. Additionally, I am extremely concerned that the future of education facilities for New Orleans children has been placed in the hands of Mr. Bingler and Parson’s, a firm presently under Federal investigation for its extreme, on-going failures and potential fraud in rebuilding Iraq, particularly the Baghdad Police Academy.

After the BESE meeting, BESE member Mr. Walter Lee, who is the superintendent of schools for DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, affirmed that the BESE board would investigate this questionable contract, and he would make sure of it, since his district had already had a very negative experience with Concordia. He suggested I follow up by calling his office for more information. On September 21, 2007, I called the DeSoto Parish Schools offices and on Mr. Lee’s instructions I was put through to Mr. Steven Stanfield, who is the Senior Business Officer for DeSoto Parish Schools, and the President of Government Finance Officers of Louisiana. Mr. Stanfield was very gracious with his time with me out of concern for the people of New Orleans presently having to go through a bad experience the people of DeSoto Parish had already been through. Mr. Stanfield said he would testify before BESE or other government agencies about his experience with Concordia and Steve Binger over 12 years.

Here are my notes summarized from our conversation:

‘In 1987 DeSoto Parish passed a tax to build new schools. 4 new board members had just been elected and somehow they found Steve Bingler in New Orleans. Bingler made a pitch that he had built other schools, although they later found out he had actually built zero at that time. His designs were so far from what had been passed for taxes and funded in agreement with the taxpayers that the District had to go to the State Supreme Court for the design not being in compliance with the tax bond issuance and the promise made to voters of what they were funding to construct. Bingler then had responsibility for site selection, and chose a site with a $3million oil and gas environmental cleanup. He should have known about the contamination, and chose a bad site. Then for mechanical engineers he used an HVAC firm from Seattle, resulting in very inappropriate climate control systems and unreasonably high energy costs, which would have made the brand-new school facility financially unsustainable. The construction bids came in over $3 million over budget and many contractors complained that the plans were unreadable. The District finally fired and went to court with Bingler. The case went on in court for 12 years. The expert passed away. The District walked away from the lawsuit with no money. Mr. Stanfield noted he “wouldn’t hire Steve Bingler to build a dog house.” He said the District paid Bingler $1.2 million for nothing. He said Concordia wanted reimbursables for everything under the sun, such as travel, telephone, etc., nickel and diming the District. He said Bingler is trying to build monuments to himself. He said if Louisiana had a contractor rating system similar to Ebay, Bingler would not have been able to get a satisfactory rating and would not have been chosen for New Orleans. He should need to prove he has practical experience. There are native Louisiana companies with school-building expertise who successfully complete projects. Bingler should be asked how many schools has he actually built. Budgets should be done to standard formats as agreed by ‘Public Budgeting in America’. Mr. Stanfield did not understand why Bingler would get the Orleans Parish facilities contract since he had been previously sued by a Louisiana Parish School District with bad results.’

Mr. Stanfield suggested I also speak with the attorney for DeSoto Parish, Ken Sills of Baton Rouge. Mr. Sills remembered the litigation. Here are my notes of our conversation of 9/21/07:

‘Bingler represented himself as a well-known and respected architect in school design. His design was too extravagant. The lowest bid was way in excess of the budget and disputes built up. The firm’s people were providing info that the costs would be within budget and when the contractors had the chance to bid, the bids were way over. Disputes from there. Question of redesigning plans arose and the contract with Bingler was terminated. The litigation was over the contract termination. No project Bingler designed was built in DeSoto Parish. The designs produced resulted in bids far in excess of available funds.”

Monday, January 28, 2008
Recovering the School District

… But let’s be careful here. Vallas wants to get in and get out. Controversies dogged him in Philadelphia once Vallas’ budget bit off more than it could chew. Observe these Vallas quotes from the Philly Inquirer:

“The first two years you literally get to do just about anything you want. You’re a demolition expert,” said Vallas, who can spin the heads of his audience with his incessant speech and ability to rattle off details of his agenda. (they ain’t used to that in Baton Rouge!)

“By year four, there’s a lot of people walking around pissed off because you’re getting so much credit for it. And by year five, you’re chopped liver…”
…He won’t stay in New Orleans as long: “Three years tops.”

Vallas has now learned to get out after he can take credit for spending money quickly but before the budgetary realities catch up to him and begin to make his decisions seem less responsible. Here’s an article detailing some of the anger that developed toward Vallas’ leadership:

It was perhaps one of the best-orchestrated public responses to mounting concerns about the academic and financial condition of the 174,000-student district in years, with members of the clergy, the local NAACP, and advocacy groups joining in.

Parents, teachers and students complained about rising class sizes, lack of art and music programs, fewer librarians and their fears that even more programs and services would be taken away as a deficit that stands at $182 million next year without cuts and more funding is closed.

I was a public high school student in Philadelphia when Paul Vallas was hired. The district at the time needed miracles. Vallas came in and had all sorts of ideas out in the papers. For years Philly school people had been decrying the state of Pennsylvania for holding back funding from the district. Vallas took a new approach, promising to enact reforms to squeeze new money from the existing budget. He proposed selling off the Philly district’s posh downtown facility and trimming the fat from the bureaucratic staff. He promised new facilities, smaller classrooms, higher scores, safer schools, and so on and so forth. At first, the man was an absolute revelation.

Sound familiar?

The first article I cited provides a good overview of his time in Philadelphia, it’s “Vallas in with roar, out with rancor”

Here’s a letter to Vallas from Michael Nutter, hero of the Philly internet community and the man who will take over as mayor in January.

Tom Ferrick, an ace columnist with the Inquirer writes a send-off to “the master of pretend and spend”

A take from Young Philly Politics. Here’s another FANTASTIC take by those fellas on the media’s Vallas-inspired boner.

Here’s Vallas embroiled in a severance pay controversy, but that might just be sour grapes on both sides.

Meanwhile, Philly’s public school district is still looking for miracles. Paul Vallas is famous.

The lesson he learned is that he needs to leave sooner, before his budget fantasies turn into budget realities. He hasn’t learned that he needs to be a more realistic and responsible steward of a budget.

The Baton Rouge people got their pants charmed off and won’t provide the guidance and oversight to force Vallas be a responsible CEO.

“The first two years you literally get to do just about anything you want.”

They will, however, happily stonewall the city of New Orleans three years from now when we have a multi-million dollar school budget shortfall and look to the state capital for a bailout. Baton Rouge might hate New Orleans more than Harrisburg hates Philadelphia. Vallas won’t have to worry though, because he’ll be on a plane to another city giving interviews for puff pieces in that town’s local papers, Time magazine, and the New York Times. Vallas won’t have to worry about “all those people walking around pissed off because he’s getting the credit,” he’ll be long-gone. “Three years tops.”

Mr. Vallas, please don’t get ahead of yourself. We know this is an emergency. Let’s be sensible. I want to like you. We know you know that nobody is watching you. When you move on to bigger things (he’s run for governor of Illinois in the past) upon the “achievements” that you’ve broken our budget to list on your resume, please try not to saddle us with additional burdens to the ones you inherited.

That’s what I wrote in October.

Since then, We Could Be Famous has remained largely silent on the Recovery School District, Mr. Vallas, and the state of public education in New Orleans.

I had to learn a few things, myself.

And though I still have a great deal to learn (about everything), I have indeed studied a whole bunch of material related to the RSD and Mr. Vallas’ record in Philadelphia.

My silence on public schools must end.

Indeed, I think I’m running for Mayor and I’m the only candidate who cares about children.

This week, barring unforeseen developments, I hope to present what I’ve discovered.

In the meantime, the RSD has been making headlines.

Sometimes district news makes you cringe about how bad things have deteriorated in our public schools over the years. This is from December 8th:

Halfway through the school year, the Recovery District is still discovering millions of dollars in unpaid bills from last school year, causing what Superintendent Paul Vallas calls a “cash flow” problem that will delay teacher bonuses by two weeks.

“There was no budget” last year, Vallas said, when asked why invoices from last school year are still popping up. Vallas took the helm over the summer after the state-run system’s tumultuous first year.

The district is trying to build a detailed budget for the 2007-08 school year — from scratch — and hopes to have one finished by February.

Pastorek said the district is in a difficult position because it gets reimbursed from FEMA for capital costs long after it spends the money — and sometimes long after the contractors need to be paid.

He told the state board this week that “every day is a crisis in the RSD financially because of cash flow problems.”
(Kind of fits into this larger context, no?)

That promised item-by-item budget has yet to materialize. This past Thursday, a long-time Vallas lieutenant who had major budget responsibilities, decided to leave the district…

Simultaneously, Mr. Vallas was making personnel changes elsewhere, firing the principal of Rabouin High, the largest school in the RSD.

Addressing the move at Rabouin, Vallas said, “I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty about why she was reassigned. Suffice to say, I felt I needed a stronger leader . . . People need to get used to the fact that, on occasion, we will go in, and if we feel a leadership change is good for the school, that’s what we will do.”

“I never want to work for the Recovery School District again,” she said. “I felt blindsided and I do not want to continue my career being uncomfortable.”

She blamed the school’s troubles on a wide-ranging lack of support from administration.

“I really think I did a great job with what we started off with and what we had to work with. I gave my all — 12, 14, 16 hours a day. I never missed a day of work,” said Boyd, a teacher for 10 years and a former assistant principal at Livingston Middle School. “I was met head-on with tons of challenges.”

Boyd’s removal sheds light on the challenges Recovery District schools face on issues as diverse as student violence, school scheduling and teacher assignments, facility maintenance and wireless Internet access needed for costly computer-based curricula.

Boyd said Rabouin’s opening was rough with wide-scale scheduling problems. Students’ schedules were a year behind, she said, placing them in classes they’d already taken. Faulty student transcripts and other data issues caused systemic foul-ups in teacher assignments, with some starting the year with one student while other classrooms were overloaded.

Boyd said adjustments that needed to be made to the master schedule to determine how many students needed a certain course were delayed because of faulty data.

Boyd said she got little district support.

Suffice it to say, I know that scheduling mayhem, though avoidable, occurred throughout the district and continued well into the school year.

On other fronts, the RSD and Mr. Vallas have fallen short of demands for transparency as they move forward with a master plan to rebuild (or demolish) the district:

Matt McBride
Karen Gadbois
Editor B.

The small achievements that the RSD touts merely make the Mount Everest facing the RSD seem that much more daunting.

A big thank you to Paul Vallas!
Submitted by Dan U-A on Wed, 05/30/2007 – 7:21am.

I just want to send a big shout-out to my main man, Paul Vallas, for high-tailing it out of Philly with such cohesion left as his legacy:

Responding to complaints from more than 40 speakers including Mayor Street and Democratic mayoral nominee Michael Nutter, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission last evening put off voting on a budget that would make vast cuts in personnel, contracts and other areas, but signaled it will adopt the plan tomorrow morning.

The commission delayed the vote to allow more time to consider the $2.18 billion proposed spending plan and to design a process that will allow for more public comment on the nearly $100 million in proposed cuts over the next several months.

The decision to delay came at the end of a more than six-hour meeting where dozens of parent leaders and students from schools across the city – many waving signs that read, “No Confidence” – paraded to the microphone to blast the commission for not allowing more input on the budget, among other recent decisions.

I mean, the genius budget manager Vallas, who magically found a holf of tens of millions of dollars in the budget, has united Michael Nutter and John Street together, to beg and plead with the SRC not to adopt a budget that slashes all kind of school programs. The SRC has decided to delay the implementation of the budget for a day or two in response. I guess that is what qualifies for a victory these days.

The article notes that despite the fact that Edison, the private company the SRC brought in, is a failure, they still will be running some schools next year. Why? I will leave that up to you to decide. But, I will just say that when education is privatized, there are some real problems that arise.

The State takeover of schools was supposed to provide the City with adequate funds. Partial privatization seemed like a price we would simply have to pay to get there. But, now we don’t have enough money, and a State commission is locking us in to paying a failing private company. If the State is not going to provide adequate funds, then it is time for the charade that is the SRC to end.

Mike Nutter Letter to Paul Vallas
Submitted by Friedman on November 2, 2006 – 8:31pm.

Mr. Paul Vallas
Chief Executive Officer
School District of Philadelphia
440 North Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19130

Dear Mr. Vallas:

I am writing to state my opposition to the numerous proposed budget cuts that have been detailed in the recent news accounts regarding the Philadelphia School District.

Some of these proposed cuts – art and music, athletics and sports, teen parenting centers, truancy officers, librarians, nurses and counselors – would have a devastating impact on our schools and many of your own education reform efforts.

It is unclear to me and many member of the public, especially parents and students, how the District’s finances have deteriorated over the past two years without more information being shared with the public, and more importantly, without a long term plan to fix the structural financial challenges that our District continues to face.

In response to this current funding crisis, I am asking that the District develop a comprehensive plan involving the wealth of partners who depend upon stable and improving public education system for the progress of this city and region. The Philadelphia School District must reach out in a cooperative manner to the City of Philadelphia, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the foundation community, the many area colleges and universities, the education advocacy community and of course citizens, parents and students to develop a plan of action that will fully inform all of the stakeholders about the direction of public education and the quality of our educational services. The School District’s current schedule will not allow sufficient review and opportunity for public input.

I am proposing that you and the School Reform Commission take the following steps:

* Provide a full, detailed disclosure of how the current budget crisis developed and a complete accounting of the past two years’ actions taken to prevent any negative educational impact on students because of funding deficiencies.

* Request a review of the Philadelphia School District finances by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority which would serve as an independent financial oversight entity.

* Provide a public explanation of the overall impact of the educational and service impacts of any budget-cut plan that is submitted to the School Reform Commission, including the impact on planning as required by the No Child Left Behind laws.

* Provide a school-by-school analysis of any proposed educational and service impacts of any budget-cut plan that is submitted to the School Reform Commission.

* Engage in a week of public hearings in City Council Chambers in order for the public, parents and students to fully understand what the District’s proposed cuts are and how those cuts will impact the educational experience of our students prior to any budget action by the Philadelphia School District and the School Reform Commission. The District can utilize the procedure outlined in the Home Rule School District Charter section 12-209(b) for public meetings of the School Reform Commission, the City Council and the Mayor.

I am strongly encouraging that you take time to extend the public input schedule, because the currently announced schedule provides virtually no real time for input by anyone.

I believe that these steps would result in a more comprehensive and thoughtful budget and would also help to restore public confidence in the School District. Thank you for your consideration, and I would appreciate your timely response.


Michael A. Nutter
Candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia

Give Vallas credit, and the lion’s share of blame

June 3, 2007
Tom Ferrick Jr.
Inquirer Columnist

When a government is spending more than it is taking in, there are only four ways that I know of to remedy the situation.
One: Lower spending to meet revenue available. Two: Increase revenue, usually through higher taxes, to cover the spending. Three: Do some combination of one and two.

(A note here: The federal government has the additional option of borrowing to cover its deficits – and lordy does it ever! – but local governments do not.)

The fourth option, and a very popular one, is what I call “pretend and spend.”

Pretend that the money needed somehow, someday will appear and include it in your budget calculations. Don’t make unpopular cuts. Don’t raise taxes. Just pretend and spend.

As it turns out, Paul Vallas was a master of pretend and spend.

Before the CEO of the Philadelphia School District departed (fled?) for New Orleans, he engaged in several years of pretend and spend at the district.

What we just witnessed in the last week is the aftermath of Vallas’ ploy:

Rancorous meetings of the School Reform Commission, punctuated with shouts and cries from angry parents, accompanied by showboating by Mayor Street, over the SRC’s plans to employ Option One and cut about $180 million from its $2.2 billion budget for next school year.

It was entertaining, but it was sad because the anger in the room was misdirected. Folks were upset at the SRC members for acting like adults and trying to live within the reality of the money available.

In the end, they persuaded the SRC to engage in a modified spend and pretend. The commission made $100 million in cuts, but held off on an additional $80 million or so, in the hope that the state and city will make up the difference.

The state and the city will not, so more cuts are inevitable, only they will be worse because they will occur in the middle of the school years and will have to be deeper because they were delayed.

On his way out of town, Vallas responded by saying the deficit is not as bad as it seems (even though it amounts to nearly 10 percent of the district’s total budget); that he spent the money for a good cause (programs that were popular); and that the good he did in his years as CEO far outweighs the financial difficulties now facing the district.

I admire what Paul Vallas did as superintendent. He brought incredible energy to the task. He restored faith and hope about the schools. He did a lot of good.
But what he did with the budget was deliberate deception. He knew he was spending more than he had and he hid that fact until it got too big to hide. There is a word for this behavior and the word is malfeasance. You can look it up.

Enough about the financial fallout; let’s look at the political side.

In listening to the speechifying before the SRC, I had a sense of déjà vu.

For 25 years, when it came to Philly schools, everyone responsible formed a circle and pointed at the other guy.

The city lambasted the state for not giving enough money. The state lambasted the city for not contributing its share. It was a circular argument with insidious effect, until the state takeover, when both sides put down their weapons, ponied up more for the schools, and decided to move forward.

The détente lasted for five years and in those five years great progress was made.

Now, what are we left with? The SRC says it will go to Harrisburg and ask for more money. A lot of money.

The likely – and legitimate answer – to those pleas will be: We gave you more money, but you screwed it up. You let Vallas run the district into the red on your watch. Now, suddenly, it’s our problem and you want us to bail you out? Hmm.

The popular local view – that the state has a moral obligation to fund Philadelphia’s public schools – is not widely held in Harrisburg, to put it mildly.

It took a lot of political good will and a rare aligning of the stars to get the state to move into the partnership that was created late in the Tom Ridge-Mark Schweiker administration.

The results have been improved schools and a better education for the children of Philadelphia.

Now, that progress is in peril, not because of the dollars and cents involved, but because of a fracturing of the political alliance that made the progress happen.

So, as he departs, let us give Paul Vallas credit he deserves for the good he did.

But, let’s also give Vallas blame he deserves for the political and financial mess he left behind.

Contact Tom Ferrick at 215-854-2714 or

Philly Mag and the Vallas CEO myth

Submitted by mansei on Thu, 09/27/2007 – 5:16am.

I was going to hold off on this post until I saw A-1 of Monday’s New York Times. Reading the story, I got the familiar sense that when it comes to great challenges like reviving our public schools, instead of tackling the issues, the media makes it about the people – and no one embodies the cult of personality bigger than Paul Vallas. There’s a love-hate relationship with the man that overwhelms the more important dialogue about the impact of the past five years of reform and what type of leader the Philadelphia public schools need today in order to move forward.

That willful blindness is perfectly embodied in Philly Mag’s Sept. 2007 Vallas profile: “Reformer R.I.P.” (

I’m not quite sure how anyone goes from leaving chaos, and a $200 million deficit, in their wake to exiting in a poof of stardust, but this is Philly Mag after all. A few choice quotes from the profile:

• “He moves fast, pursuing his agenda with military urgency, chafing those accustomed to the status quo”;
• “the most effective schools CEO in a generation”;
• “an accessible leader who would make things happen”;
• “uncensored, quirky candor”
• “perception of superhuman ubiquity”

While one might give a pass to an outsider’s awe of Vallas’ outsized personality, the characterizations of SRC Chairman James Nevels are nothing short of bizarre:

• “If Vallas was Batman, Nevels was Commissioner Gordon.”
• “Nevels brought equilibrium, legitimacy and a mandate”;
• “[Nevels] often worked behind the scenes, the quiet curator of district support and stability”

(Funny, most of us see the latter reference as rather Karl Rovian.)

For the record, I am professionally indifferent to Paul Vallas, and personally – well, all I can say is, he believed what he said at the time he was saying it.

But when we talk about schools, I have no desire to talk about Vallas and whether he was charming or ambitious, engaging, eager or brilliant. He was all of those at some point. Any review of Vallas can’t be measured by whether he brings “hope” (talk about low-balling), or whether he was too ambitious for the poverty stricken resources of his District (so was Hornbeck but we didn’t see Philly Mag loving him up). In the end, a promise was made to Philadelphia that a broke struggling school system would be turned around, that charters, privatization, state governance and new money would revolutionize the public schools in ways that our tired status quo hadn’t. So how did we do?

But the conversation rarely focuses on a nuanced and complicated assessment of that (other than trotting out a handful of numbers, most of which contradict each other). Instead, the media can’t see education beyond Vallas’ persona. Even his flagrant disregard for finances is treated as some kind of charming eccentricity done in the best interest of kids, while overlooking his outsourcing of tens of millions of dollars in questionable contracts, charters, and quiet destabilizing of school-based spending.

It is amazingly disingenuous for reporter Adam Fifield to suggest that Vallas had no knowledge of a budget deficit until October 2006 when District insiders had been talking about it for more than a year, and parents had organized around the District’s lack of openess about its finances since the previous spring when the District increased class sizes, cut hundreds of teachers, announced leveling, and cut bus service.

Equally as irresponsible is to suggest that the machinations of a weak-willed SRC were what ultimately brought Vallas down. Fifield’s exhibits shocking obliviousness to the history of the SRC and its responsibility for the deficit (through significant contracting and letting loose a wild CEO with few checks).

The combination of wild and reckless spending, along with a culture of entitlement and patronage at the District ($15,000 worth of Four Seasons dinners on the District dime by the SRC Chair James Nevels, Vallas’ use of District $$ to pay for Chicago consultants) showed tremendous disregard for the prudence and discipline that was needed in this supposed time of “reform.” Today, class sizes have gone up, and the drop-out rate for high school has barely moved. We’ve got $2.2 billion poured into this system, and schools crying poverty. Is this entirely Vallas’ fault? Of course not, but he and we as a community were all too eager to leave it up to him to either fail or succeed with far too little oversight. Vallas’ accomplishments – and there are quite a few – should stand for as long as they can, but frankly, most of them threaten to be undone by the deficit he and the SRC left us.

We don’t need more of this resurrecting of the myth of the messianic CEO. It’s no mystery about what makes public schools work. The question for us is whether we have the political will to get this thing done. What we need now, post-Vallas, is not a man and a myth but a leadership team that works in conjunction with the city, state and community to focus on the inglorious nuts and bolts of making schools work, of investing in classrooms and professional development, of cultivating our internal capacity for leadership and curricular expertise, of canning the no-bid, non-performance based contracts that have sucked the finances and energy of our system, and of seeing our children as long-term investments that ought to be measured by more than just the annual testing data.

Everyday, 270-plus school doors open, 10,000 teachers show up for work, 200,000 meals are served, 60,000 windows open and close, and 175,000 children carry the hope and future of this city with them. They, and we, deserve better.

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