Public School Notebook

Monday RoundUp: Budget chaos, gambling free for all, immigration and health care, the BRT usual – and city leaders are where?

It’s all budgets all the time with the news that a veto-proof agreement may have been crafted. The compromise however leaves a lot of areas hanging:

Education: The compromise blows a major hole in the education budget as reported by Dan Hardy, confirming rumors that have been swirling for months (edit: a bit of hyperbole there - rumors have been swirling for a few weeks, not months). The School District is expected to be at least $140 million short – a move that one District insider said months ago would be "the end of the world." Hardest hit are likely to be pre-school and help for students looking to return to school and get their diplomas. The SRC meanwhile has chosen to postpone its September meeting dates without explanation. Explaining to the public how you didn’t really have a Plan B is such a chore. Read more at the Public School Notebook.

PICA punts on Plan C: Speaking of a lack of plans, the city buys time when PICA declines to weigh in on Plan C, saving the Mayor an embarrassing rejection as one Councilman notes. But it does highlight a widespread lack of faith in the alternative the Mayor has submitted.

Look on the Bright Side: Now we can play poker to really class up those slots barns! Although it looks like neighborhood bars may not get their video poker, the state believes its second highest revenue generator – expanded gambling through table games – is still the magic bullet to plug holes. Sort of. Actually only briefly. $200 million this year and a 40% drop in revenues next year (casino industry estimates by the way, and we know how reliable those are). Meanwhile, with the political gambling contributions ban eliminated, it’s a virtual free for all for the casino industry to ensure table games are as individually profitable as they are likely.

In other news, the Inky puts another foot on the BRT’s keister with a series of stories on the new tax assessments. Patrick Kerkstra notes that it’s "business as usual" for one city block where some assessments tripled. Meanwhile the BRT follows incompetence with – what else? More incompetence!

Among the findings:

Hundreds of the new commercial numbers were thrown off by mistakes littering the BRT's property records, including incorrectly sized lots and buildings that don't exist. At Seventh and Arch Streets, for example, the BRT calculated a new value of $5.2 million on what the agency thought was a huge, 200-space parking lot. But there is no such lot, just a narrow walkway next to the Federal Detention Center.

Instead of trying to figure out a property's real worth, the BRT's assessors slapped the same percentage increases on thousands of parcels across the city. More than 500 would get the same 40 percent increase - properties as different as a $6 million shopping center on Castor Avenue and a long-empty hoagie shop in North Philadelphia.

More than 6,000 commercial properties - a quarter of the total - are missing entirely, left undone as the BRT rushed to send the AVI numbers to impatient city officials last spring.

Apparent glitches in the BRT's computer models produced some bizarre results. Parking lots in a drug-ravaged section of Frankford, for example, were valued at a steep $140 per square foot - more pricey than many lots in Center City.

The most telling line:

Mayor Nutter, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

And finally, Michael Smerconish, who when googling past columns of his, I came across the unfortunate nature of his Philly Mag profile. I do not advise.

Anyway, he takes on the Joe Wilson-immigrant reform-Obama health care controversy, even though not a one links logically to the another.

Now for the record, Smerconish actually published a column about his diversifying of America paranoia:

I know I'm not alone in my belief that today's immigrants - those here both legally and illegally - are not assimilating the way my forefathers did when they arrived.

And before I'm shouted down as a xenophobe, hear me out. My intent isn't to amplify the shrill debate surrounding illegal immigration. What I'm interested in is defending the tradition to which my grandparents adhered: the one that led them to a new name and a better life in this country.

I fear we are leaving it behind.

Leaving aside the philly.com comment stream, and they are particularly colorful whenever immigration is raised – Smerconish nevertheless raises sensible points about why the far right’s call to completely deny undocumented people from receiving health care is bad policy:

  1. It would require the undoing of the 1986 Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act requiring care for anyone who visits an emergency room.
  2. It would require doctors and caregivers to function as immigration agents first, and health care professionals second.
  3. It wouldn’t keep with our national rep to deny health care to people who were gunshot victims, or giving birth, or in a car accident, or suffering from a communicable disease, say.
  4. And it doesn’t help the fact that what health care professionals are more concerned about are insurance protections than verifying legal status.

Smerconish omits one other important reality, and that’s the fact that so many families in the U.S. are of mixed immigration status. Back in 1999, the Urban Institute reported that as many as one in ten American families had at least one family member who was undocumented. A more recent Pew study shows that 75% of the children of undocumented immigrants are U.S. citizens. So it kinda makes it complicated when you start trying to deny citizen kids health care check-ups for school when their parents don't have the right paperwork.

In the end, though, Obama’s health care reform bill is meant to address health insurance plans and medical coverage in general. It’s not meant to rewrite every single law that deals with health care. And although Smerconish raises some good points, it’s just plain misdirection to raise the 1986 law and try to hang it on the president’s neck.

What it takes to be the next SRC Commissioner

Because you know, (effectively) ousted Commissioner Heidi Ramirez – who was the SRC’s first Latina member, was described as the SRC's "most qualified" member, had a doctorate in education, devoted her professional career to improving urban schools, and asked (gasp!) questions about needs, costs, budgets and performance assessments of programs during public meetings – really just didn’t cut it.

According to the Public School Notebook, this is the kind of Commissioner the state believes the SRC really needs:

  1. Male
  2. Attorney (Cozen O’Connor)
  3. PA finance chair for McCain/Palin 2008
  4. PA Chair Bush/Cheney 2000
  5. former SEPTA board chair (and we know how pleasantly they’ve acted in a school financial crisis)
  6. Education involvement: Two year stint as Chair of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools, 1999-2001.

In a joint announcement with Sen. Pileggi, Gov. Rendell gave this reason for why David Girard-DiCarlo should sit on the District’s top oversight body:

"He is committed to making public education better."

At least someone can define a floor.

New York Times on Philly's Media Future

Local indy media – particularly the Philadelphia Public School Notebookgot big props in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. Calling it "notably well written" and a place that "breaks stories," the Times also highlights editor Paul Socolar:

Its editor, Paul Socolar, may be something like the journalist of the future. He is earnest, dedicated to a cause, foundation-financed and, to this point, read by a narrow audience. I=2 0accompanied him to a press briefing for the rollout of the Philadelphia school district’s $3.2 billion budget. He quickly imbibed a thick handout filled with charts and long columns of numbers and jotted down questions, which seemed a bit sharper and harder to answer than those asked by the reporters from the city’s two dailies.

Having known Paul for 15 years, it’s well-deserved kudos to one of the city’s most humble, hard-working and principled journalists and to a paper that’s filling in what traditional media has too often ceded – solid beat coverage with an investigative and spirited mission. Plan Philly and Media Mobilizing Project also earn mentions for coverage in areas where big media has lapsed, namely development and immigration.

But clearly the “star” of the story is PNI’s Brian Tierney, and not always in the most flattering of ways (note: “gentleman’s club” congressional testimony not particularly emblematic of his diplomatic skills).

Philly Progressive Links

We are in the beginning stages of figuring out how to link up various parts of the Philly progressive blog world, in some sort of systematic way. Before we get there though, there are a few sites that I would encourage you to checkout and bookmark, if you haven't.

First, the Media Mobilizing Project has a series of blogs, including from immigrant rights group Juntos, from the Philly Student Union, from progressive Philly Labor, and more. Individually, each site has quite a bit of good stuff. For example, check out this video from Our City, Our Voices, the blog from Juntos, titled "Por Nuestros Hijos, Padres Inmigrantes Organizados/For Our Children, Immigrant Parents Organizing". It talks to a number of immigrant parents about their efforts to organize around their children's schools in South Philly.

Second, and also on the education side, is the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. Len Rieser, of the Education Law Center, explores the lack of input that went into picking the new members of the School Reform Commission (SRC), and whether or not that is still appropriate:

The three people whose appointments to the SRC were unveiled last week are, by all accounts, excellent choices. But why was there absolutely zero public input into the selection process?

The answer is simple. In 2001, then-Secretary of Education Charles Zogby declared Philadelphia to be a District in Distress – sort of like the damsel-in-distress of medieval tales, or the lady tied to the railroad tracks in old westerns. Under Act 88 of 2001, this declaration turned us into the object of a rescue operation, to be carried out by a commission (the SRC) appointed by the state and city. Since rescuers seldom consult with the victim about exactly how s/he would like to be saved, it’s not surprising that Act 88 allowed (and continues to allow) for peremptory, closed-door decision-making along the lines of what we saw last week.

But it’s 7 ½ years later, and time to ask whether rescue mode still makes sense.

State law allowed Secretary Zogby to designate a district as distressed if it was defaulting on its finances, failing to operate for the full school year, out of compliance with state laws, or in some other way doing seriously bad things. While Philly may have met some of these criteria in 2001, it's unclear that any apply now (although, like a number of other districts in this state, we certainly still have big problems).

And third, is SEPTA Watch. In fact, SEPTA Watch is the one blog that I have delivered to me by email, because it is short, to the point, and does something that I think most effective blogs of that sort do: It calls out obviously stupid things as stupid. For example, why is there so much trash at 30th Street? Or, why does the only transit expansion we get go to service casinos, and not say, the Navy Yard or something else?

What Philly-Centric sites are you reading?

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