Tuesday, June 30, 2015

City has ‘no idea’ how Philadelphia schools spend its taxes

By Evan Grossman | Watchdog.org

The Philadelphia City Council gives schools millions in taxpayer dollars, but where does it go?

The council approved up to $70 million in new, recurring funding for public schools — on top of the more than $1.2 billion the district already receives from local taxes.

“We don’t know what the money is for,” Councilman At-Large David Oh (R) told Watchdog. “Where does it go?”

Council President Darrell Clarke raised the same questions.

The council this fall will conduct a joint audit of the School District of Philadelphia with Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. The findings will help shape future school budgets and address the district’s structural deficit.

DePasquale was already scheduled to produce his own regular performance audit of the schools later this year.

Since 2009, the city has thrown more than $357 million in funding increases at the district, yet council members question School Reform Commission spending habits and its lack of transparency.

Each council member was provided three school budget books, including one “that breaks down school budgets by council district,” SDP spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

“In addition, Superintendent Hite met with every available council member to walk them through the budget books and answer any remaining questions regarding the budget,” he said. “These books and guides provide a very detailed and comprehensive view of the overall school district budget and the budgets of each school in our district.”

Watchdog obtained copies of all three documents, which can be found here, here and here.

“I’ve heard people say they know from reading the budget,” Oh said. “Well, no, you don’t know. I read the budget very carefully and I read it with my staff.”

Council President Darrell Clarke’s office failed to return multiple requests for comment.

Oh said he questions the precise spending habits of many city agencies, and he’s called for the creation of a legislative budget office to conduct performance audits. The city staffs a Budget and Program Evaluation unit within the Director of Finance’s office that carries out similar duties.

“That’s a way to see what’s happening to your money,” he said. “You don’t know what that money is for, that is an alarming thing.”

The Council approved a trio of tax hikes to help the district close an $85 million deficit, after a spirited budget hearing process in which council members grilled school officials on things such as spending habits and the lack of cursive writing in the curriculum,

The district was seeking $103 million. Mayor Michael Nutter proposed $105 million in new, recurring funds, but the Council balked at his 9.3 property tax increase. Instead, the district got $70 million — $50 million tied to a 4.5 percent property tax increase, $10 million from a Use and Occupancy tax on businesses and $10 million from a city parking tax bump.

But the council is withholding $25 million — dependent on the district’s plans to outsource substitute teachers and school nurses. Clarke has indicated that money may never make it to schools if public jobs are outsourced to private contractors. Last week, the School Reform Commission approved a $34 million contract with Source4Teachers, a Cherry Hill-based firm that will supply subs.

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