The Philadelphia School Reform Commission adopted yesterday a $3.2 billion budget for the 2009-10 school year that funds dozens of new initiatives and moves to shift controversial assessment employees off the district's payroll.
The budget - which relies on federal stimulus money and lowers class sizes in the early grades - was passed unanimously at a special meeting.
But the commission signaled that it wants employees of the Bureau of Revision of Taxes off the Philadelphia School District's payroll. For years, the district has paid for 80 BRT patronage employees, to avoid a City Charter provision that bans city employees from engaging in political activity.
These jobs are handed out to party loyalists and their families by Rep. Robert A. Brady, the city Democratic chairman, and his Republican counterpart, Michael Meehan, The Inquirer reported this month as part of its series on mismanagement and cronyism at the BRT.
The workers answer phones, check on properties, and handle other clerical tasks. Members of the BRT board have said they would rather have unrestricted funds from the school board so they could hire more trained assessors.
Last week, Chairman Robert Archie said in a statement that the current arrangement was not efficient, and that the district should turn the money over to the city rather than paying the workers itself.
But it's unclear what will happen to these patronage workers.
After questions from Commissioners Heidi Ramirez and Johnny Irizarry at yesterday's meeting, the panel shifted $3.2 million of the $4.28 million budgeted for the BRT workers to a "professional and technical services" account in the hope the city will take on those workers after September.
Mayor Nutter and City Council have ordered a task force to look at the BRT, and the commission hopes the task force will relocate the workers to the city's payroll by then, said Michael Masch, chief business officer. If that's not the case, the commission would have to consider restoring the money to the payroll account, he said.
"The School Reform Commission supports a unified Bureau of Revision of Taxes budget and payroll in one place, and that one place should be the city payroll," Masch said after the meeting.
The Nutter administration applauded the SRC's decision as improving accountability and transparency at the BRT, said mayoral spokesman Doug Oliver.
But Oliver said it was too soon to say how the city would use the contract funds, or even if the existing employees were certain to retain their jobs.
"There is a decision to be made as to whether these folks are picked up as full-time city employees, and therein lies the work," Oliver said.
Parents - spearheaded by Parents United for Public Education, an advocacy group - pushed hard for this change.
Helen Gym, one of the leaders of Parents United who has put pressure on the district to get rid of the BRT employees for years, said the move was "pretty significant. For decades, this is where the BRT has parked all of its patronage employees."
Still, Gym said, she was disappointed that the district was still laying out millions for the BRT.
"We came into this hoping we would see some savings for the school district, and that's really disappointing," she said. "I don't think the agency is one that deserves $4.5 million worth of funding."
Masch said he had no quibble with the district paying for the BRT clerks.
"No assessments, no property taxes," Masch told reporters. "Somebody has to do that work."
Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for the BRT, said the move did not affect the agency's work. "When it comes to the day-to-day operations of the BRT, it makes almost no difference with respect to the work that's being done," he said.
The agency employs 200 workers. Although the 80 workers paid by the school district are patronage hires who are exempt from civil service rules and thus free to engage in political activities, the agency's 120 other employees are not.
The district's budget retires a deficit that has troubled city schools since 2006, and includes $209 million in federal stimulus money.
It includes $126 million for Imagine 2014, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's five-year strategic plan. The class-size reduction initiative is part of that plan, along with more counselors, more early childhood education slots, and more special education services.
District officials say they don't know how much the plan will cost after the first year, though, and that troubles some in education circles. There is also concern over the district's banking on $149 million in state aid, the figure proposed by Gov. Rendell but not yet approved by the legislature.
Read "Tax Travesty," a three-part series on chaos and cryonism inside the BRT, at http://go.philly.com/brt