Chapter One: September

29 Sep

Confessions of an Urban Principal

by Frank Murphy

Installment (8 of 8)

The teacher’s contract has expired today for the second time. It had been extended at the end of August for one month.  Today is September 30th.   The School Reform Commissions Chair, Jim Nevels, has been insinuating that the SRC is going to impose a contract on the union.  The leadership of the PFT so far has scoffed at Nevels’s threat. They say they will not accept an imposed agreement. This is a big story but you would hardly know it by reading the Philadelphia area newspapers. The reporting on this contract dispute has been occasional and brief.  The articles I have seen have been buried in the back pages of the paper.  This scanty coverage by the press is curious.  Even more intriguing is the amount of coverage Paul Vallas has received in the last two weeks on a subject other than contract negotiations.

Last Friday, the Daily News ran an article entitled, “Vallas won’t run for Mayor”.  The Sunday Inquirer ran a similar article on its front page.  The Inquirer headline read, “Vallas brings sense of hope to beleaguered city schools.” A potential teacher strike looms and the media doesn’t describe the role of Vallas in the contract negotiations.  Instead, the paper circulates speculation that he might be running for mayor.

Nevels—not Vallas—is the person consistently identified by the press as the main man involved in negotiating a new the teachers’ contract with the school district.   Anything positive which happens related to the district is attributed to Vallas, while the negatives belongs to other people.  The Inquirer article gives Vallas credit for raising the test scores of the district, initiating a building boom, and balancing the school district’s budget.  You couldn’t pay to get better press.  Included in the article are quotes from a school district parent.  Her praise for Vallas would make any modest person blush.  “He is my hero.  He is my knight in shining armor.  He’s innovative.  He’s creative.”  Such earnest praise from a parent is priceless. She is a parent whose children attend one of the more successful schools in the district, located in the very affluent Society Hill section of the city.

In this six-column article there are a total of two sentences that refer to the teacher’s contract negotiations:  “The latest contract extension expires Thursday.  I wish we had a contract with the teacher’s union,” the reporter quoted Mr. Vallas.   Towards the very end of the article, there are quotes from a former district administrator and from Phil Goldsmith the district’s prior CEO.  The quotes compliment Vallas while suggesting that much of the seeds of the current change were laid during the Hornbeck administration.  Their remarks, I suppose, were intended to offer some balance to the piece.

After I finish reading the article I have many questions.  From the first week Vallas arrived in town he has made big promises.  Among his first claims was his intention to balance the districts budget and to build new schools.   He wowed the public with his ambitious plans.

In his two years thus far there hasn’t been much school construction, just stories of what is going to be built.  The budget deficit still exists.  When the SRC took control of the district’s finances, it took out a three hundred million dollar loan.  This money has helped to balance the district’s budget. Payment of this debt will not begin until long after Mr. Vallas is gone.  The challenge of repaying this loan will be the next boss’s problem.

He makes people feel good.  He talks tough about school reform.  He says he’ll make the schools more accountable to the people.  Mr.Vallas understands that the people’s feelings are what most influence their thoughts and judgments about school issues. He is great manipulator of the feelings of school reform.  Mr.Vallas knows what people want to hear and he seems to have no problem saying the right things to his audiences.

The papers are speculating about whether he will run for office in Philadelphia or return for another bid to become Governor of Illinois.  If he does aspire to political office in Philadelphia, it makes sense that he would want to stay out of messy items like contract negations with the teacher’s union.

The Inquirer reporter who wrote this article didn’t attempt to penetrate the protective wall of positive perception, which has been built around our new school chief.  There wasn’t any probing investigative reporting evident in this piece.

The Daily News story did reveal some interesting information: Mr. Vallas has brought to Philadelphia several members of his former campaign staff from his failed gubernatorial bid in Illinois. Among these individuals are his current Chief of Staff, the manager of Foundation and Business Partnerships for the school district, a special assistant, and an individual who runs a private business, which has been awarded over two hundred thousand dollars in contracts from the district.  The husband of the manager of Foundation and Business Partnerships has also been given a job in the district’s facilities operations department.  What educational credentials do any of these individuals have which would qualify them for positions in an urban school system?  Is it appropriate for the head of a large urban school district to hire individuals who have such close personal connections with him?

One of the main sticking points in the current teacher negotiations is the SRC’s insistence that the principal be the sole individual who is responsible for choosing the staff of the school.  The union is concerned that staffing will return to the bad old days where teacher hiring was political and dependent on whom the teacher knew instead of on his or her qualifications. I would like to know more about our school chief’s position on the S.R.C. proposal regarding how to hire staff.  One might wonder whether Mr.Vallas’ recent staff hiring justify the union’s concern. The Daily News story doesn’t raise this question.


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