The BRT, patronage and $5 million of school cash

(Cartoon: Signe Wilkinson for the Philadelphia Daily News)
In 2008, Parents United for Public Education began a successful campaign to remove 80 workers from the Bureau of Revision of Taxes off the School District payroll. These workers cost city schools $4.7 million in the FY2008 budget despite the fact that they worked off-site, were hired and reported to the City, and included ward leaders and committee members who were ineligible for city work according to Philadelphia’s ethics law. The campaign not only challenged the cost of the BRT workers but also corresponded with a major investigation and eventual overhaul of the entire department. In 2009, the City agreed that the BRT workers should come under City jurisdiction, although it still charges the School District of Philadelphia $4 million as a fee to cover salaries. In the FY2012 budget, the City of Philadelphia agreed to also bring under City jurisdiction employees in the City Controller’s office and pay for approximately $600,000 in salaries. Parents United continues its campaign to remove the $4 million fee for salaries off the District operating budget.

December 16, 2009

Philadelphia Inquirer editorial: “Let others apply for BRT patronage jobs

“It is clear that Nutter and City Council have no intention of replacing the BRT’s nearly 80 patronage employees. While those workers are not the agency’s main problem, they were hired because of their political connections, as opposed to their professional qualifications.

A number of the employees are ward leaders and committeemen. They get paid through the school district in order to evade a City Charter rule that prohibits city employees from working on political campaigns.

It’s a sham set-up, and has been in place for decades. Council and Nutter defend the patronage workers saying they are decent people who have been unfairly maligned. No one is saying the patronage employees are bad people. But it is impossible to reform an agency stocked with workers hired because of who they know, not what they know.

Some of the clerks may be able to do their job, but studies have found the agency is bloated and many of the jobs aren’t necessary. It’s telling that their former boss was a political insider who wasn’t licensed to perform assessments.

As patronage employees, one of their main roles is to get pols elected, and reelected. Clearly, taxpayers should not have to fund a shadow political arm.

Nutter wants to end their political work. However, the mayor has come up with an absurd way to ensure that everyone keeps their job, while making it appear aboveboard. He wants the BRT employees to take a civil-service exam. But the exam will only be open to those with experience as clerks in government property assessing agencies.

In other words, only people who already have the job can apply.

Apparently, this is what passes for reform in Philadelphia.”

May 6, 2009

Statement on the BRT 

Parents United for Public Education believes that children and schools must come first in the District’s budget. As such, we strongly urge the School Reform Commission and the leadership of the School District of Philadelphia to continue the call of previous administrations and remove employees from the Bureau of Revision of Taxes off the District payroll.

We believe this is essential for the following reasons:

  • According to the District’s fiscal year 2010 budget, not only are 80 employees budgeted in for $4.5 million, but this amount is a full 18% increase since FY08.
  • Between a third and 40% of the BRT employees are on the School District payroll.
  • Because city ethic laws prohibit employees with political connections, a large number of those types of hires sit at the District. Several had their names published in Monday’sInquirer story: “Tax Travesty: BRT serves as a Political Jobs Bank,” including school employees Donna Aument, David Shadding, Lorenzo McCray and Helyn Cheeks. Click here to read articles in the series.
  • According to the Inquirer, at least one former District CEO implied that School Reform Commission members were active in retaining the BRT contract.
  • One former School Reform Commissioner was noted as having received $160,000 in BRT consulting contracts.

As parents and concerned community members, we have struggled to direct more funds into classroom and school based budgets – initiatives that have languished for years like additional teaching staff, high school reforms, facility repairs, and librarians. $4.5 million can and must be better used towards things that directly benefit children and not towards things that potentially implicate the District in a scandal that was not of its own making and has no relationship to its function. 

May 4, 2009

Update: The Inquirer reports on the BRT issue. Click here to read.

What are dozens of politically connected City employees who don’t report to the School District doing on the School District payroll? It’s a question Parents United has been asking since Spring 2008 when we noted that the Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT) was increasing its financial request to the schools by 40%, totaling nearly $5 million.

For years, the BRT (and the City Controller’s office) have parked dozens of employees on the School District’s budget, despite the fact that they work off-site, don’t report to any district office, and include a number of people who hold political offices that would make them ineligible by city ethics standards. The amount of money for these jobs has grown steadily over the years, and it’s time to start asking some questions.

Parents United wrote a letter to the BRT’s board requesting an explanation for the expenses. The board referred us to the School District – who have tried unsuccessfully for years to move the employees off the payroll. Since then we’ve been raising the issue with city officials and putting the issue before the media.

For us, the BRT payroll is an important challenge about the kind of entitlement that has taken place in the school district around patronage since the state takeover. Challenging why the BRT feels entitled to park its expenses on the School District payroll is a challenge as well to other entities who somehow feel free to say: Hey it’s $2 billion, I want a little of that. It’s the ethos of a handful of political players who feel like the District ought to hire their pet companies and contracts, force the district to accept EMOs and open up unlimited charters without rethinking financial viability, employ friends and relatives, and so on.

The effort around the BRT is about ethics, accountability and financial priorities in difficult times. We’ll keep you updated on this campaign.

Read Helen Gym’s analysis on Young Philly Politics here.

June 11, 2008

Press Release: Parents United raises questions about BRT employees on School District payroll

What are 85 real estate assessors doing on the School District’s payroll?

They belong to the Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT).

According to the School District’s budget, 85 BRT employees sit on the School District’s payroll for a cost of $4.7 million in fiscal year 2008. That’s 18% more than it was last year. Next year at $4.9 million it will be almost a million dollars more than a year ago. (Click here to view the page from the School District budget that details the cost of BRT employees’ services – this is a PDF.)

Currently only 74 BRT employees are on the District’s payroll. A review of those names shows over 40% of them hold political positions, including ward leaders and political committee leaders. Click here to see the list of names. (PDF)

What’s wrong with this picture? A lot.

First, what do these people do exactly and why do we need so many of them when they have rapidly growing expenses? Second, the fact that such a large percentage of them appear to hold political positions and are outside the scope of both the city (even though they’re doing city work) and the School District (since they are offsite at the Curtis Center) raises concerns that this money is being spent wisely. And finally, $4.9 million may not seem a lot to some people, but it would almost double the arts and music programs in the school that were allotted this year. It would buy back 50 teachers, a third of the number cut this year. It would more than buy back the 25% librarian losses we suffered this year.

We all know that public money needs to be spent wisely. When that money is on the District, the consequences are even more obvious when there are concerns that the money can be better spent.

Last week Parents United for Public Education sent a letter to the Board of Revision of Taxes asking them to remove BRT employees from the School District payroll and asking them to justify expenses that compete with the education of kids. It’s not that we want to second-guess the work of the BRT, but we do need some accountability for why people think they can park their expenses on our kids dime.

Read Parents United’s letter to the BRT here. (PDF)

Support the campaign by contacting your local councilperson and asking them to investigate the issue. You can also help by writing a letter to the editor of your local paper.

Talk about it! It makes a difference!

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