With the dissolution of the School Reform Commission, Mayor Kenney will soon take over the $2.9 billion-a-year School District of Philadelphia.
As a black Philadelphian and a taxpayer whose children attend our city’s public schools, I am the typical School District parent. So let me speak bluntly.
We are the majority of the city’s population, our children make up 86 percent of those who attend our public schools, and before anyone takes over the schools, we have some demands.
We want the majority of School District contracts to go to companies owned by Philadelphians who are people of color. We want School District jobs to go to parents whose children attend neighborhood schools. We want a process in which School District parents will have a voice in deciding who sits on the nine-member school board. And we want a yearly audit of the money — our money — and how it is spent on our schools.
For too long, the Philadelphia School District has served as a piggy bank for those who have no real stake in our children’s education. It has suffered under the whims of those who do not live in Philadelphia. It has languished under private contractors who look down on our children, even as those same contractors benefit from our tax dollars. This is no longer acceptable. It must be changed.
I asked the mayor what he was willing to do to make sure the people had a voice in deciding who serves on the new school board. In a statement, mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Hitt pointed to the convening of a nominating panel.
“You must live in Philadelphia in order to serve on the nominating panel,” she said in the statement. “It is the nominating panel who then submits 27 names to the mayor, from which he chooses nine to serve on the school board. That process was approved by the voters in a Charter amendment that was put on the ballot in the late ’90s [or early 2000s].”
Hitt added that Kenney does not support the elected school board model that many Philadelphians prefer, because he thinks the accountability is spread too thin. With the mayor appointing a school board whose term is concurrent with his own, Philadelphians could vote out the mayor and the school board at the same time, Hitt said.
Which means the buck essentially stops with Kenney. Still, big questions remain.
Will the new school board be mired in political deal-making, with fat contracts doled out to the mayor’s political allies and campaign contributors? Or will the mayor and City Council work together to make sure the new board is imbued with the kinds of checks and balances that build in accountability?
Whatever happens, one thing is certain: The School District of Philadelphia is facing a projected $700 million budget deficit over the next five years. If the mayor is going to close that deficit without the help of the state, the money will ultimately come from Philadelphians.
In this, the poorest big city in America, the question is simple: Which Philadelphians will wind up paying the freight?
I have long said that part of the money to fully fund Philadelphia’s public schools should come from scrapping or retooling the 10-year tax abatement — a tax break that allows developers and others who can afford new construction to avoid paying property taxes on new buildings or additions for 10 years.
Fifty-five percent of property taxes are mandated to go to schools, so the tax abatement is essentially a giveaway to rich Philadelphians at the expense of poor black and brown children who attend our public schools.
Hitt, in her statement, said that the mayor’s office is looking at adjusting the tax abatement as an option to bring in new school funding, but that the administration thinks the city would ultimately lose money by scrapping the abatement, because people wouldn’t build here.
I don’t buy that explanation. I think rich people are getting a break at the expense of our children. But rich people aren’t the only ones. The Philadelphia Parking Authority, according to some in city government, should be paying $18 million a year to Philadelphia’s public schools. Instead, it pays about $10 million annually.
“We need a full performance audit and a management audit of the Parking Authority from top to bottom to tell us what they spent on no-bid contracts, high-level personnel, and administrative costs,” Councilwoman Helen Gym. “The Parking Authority is making money — and more money than they were before. What they’ve not been able to show is that they’re delivering those dollars to the schools that actually need them.”
So the mess in our schools is not just about the mayor. It’s about tax systems, a lack of accountability, and a system that must be repaired.
But most of all, it’s about those most affected by the years of neglect.
Children of color and the parents who love them have made our demands. We now know whom to hold accountable.
Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon on Praise 107.9 FM.
An earlier version of this post wrongly reported that the School District of Philadelphia projected budget deficit over the next five years. The correct amount is $700 million.