Is trouble brewing between City Council and the schools?

Superintendent William R. Hite. (STEPHANIE AARONSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

City Council is not happy with the Philadelphia School District - again.

This spring, Council publicly blasted Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and other officials for what it said was a lack of transparency and information, but finally agreed to parcel out $70 million in new money for the district.

But recently, and in private, Council President Darrell L. Clarke launched another salvo at Hite, ordering more information on a recent series of administrative hires the superintendent has made, and reminding him that $25 million of the district's money has strings attached - with final approval still to come from Council.

In asking Council for $100 million this year, Hite said the money would go "directly to classroom support," Clarke reminded the superintendent in a letter obtained by The Inquirer. "It is on the basis of your testimony that Council approved" the money.

"Let me be clear about my concern with this announcement," Clarke wrote: How will hiring several top administrators "enhance the educational experience of Philadelphia's children?"

The deputies Hite hired or whose duties he expanded will draw more than $1 million in salary annually. District officials have defended the moves, saying that the system's administrative spending is low and that the work these managers perform is crucial to supporting schools.

But the Council president was firm in the Aug. 6 letter: Before anyone signs off on the final $25 million, "it will be essential that Council have a clear understanding of the School District's educational focus and financial spending plan at that time."

Hite's response to Clarke, sent Aug. 17 and comprising dozens of pages of documents, characterized the hiring as essential and the spending as necessary.

"We know that for us to achieve our equity mission - i.e., to have great schools in every neighborhood - we need to provide consistent, close and responsive support to every school in every neighborhood," Hite wrote. "Providing this support requires us to adapt and modify our structure and our ways of operating."

Hite said the jobs he filled were "critical vacancies, and I am confident that each of these colleagues will have a positive impact on our support for schools and the learning opportunities we provide for students."

Hite said 3 percent of the district's $2.7 billion budget is spent on administrative costs, "which is significantly lower both than our peer school districts and than prior School District spending levels."

Clarke's letter suggests that with Council's concerns, school officials will have to worry this fall about more than Harrisburg, where lawmakers have yet to pass a budget.

Clarke historically has not been shy about voicing his frustrations with the district. He was against the district's move to privatize substitute teaching services, and is wary of its exploration of possibly outsourcing school nurses. He has called for a formal fiscal oversight role for Council.

He echoed those themes in an interview Thursday, stressing that Council needs assurances "that the money is going in the right places - educating kids, not hiring a number of high-salaried administrators."

Though Clarke said he works well with School Reform Commission Chairwoman Marjorie Neff, he said he believed the SRC had outlived its usefulness and needs replacing as a governance system.

And, he said, he will continue the push for more fiscal say-so over the district.

It is inappropriate, Clarke said, that Council's role is "limited to simply authorizing increases in taxes."

He said the district's responses to Council requests "tell me nothing," and added that he and other Council members would have "very detailed requests" leading to hearings on appropriating the district's $25 million.

"We'll see how that plays out," Clarke said.

Schools spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the district had not received a response to Hite's most recent letter, and so is "unaware that the letter is insufficient."

But, Gallard said, "if more detail is necessary, we absolutely are at the ready to provide whatever information his office or Council needs regarding the School District of Philadelphia."


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