Philly schools plan to spend more on lobbyists to “educate” lawmakers

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The Philadelphia School District, facing down a $434 million budget deficit in the coming fiscal year, is in the process of soliciting lobbyists that can explain to state lawmakers, “its innovative reform programs and impressive successes.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Sunday that the district, led by embattled Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, sent out a request for proposals saying it’s “seeking an agency, individual, or organization to support the district’s growing governmental relations operation in Harrisburg . . . and Washington, D.C.”

The district is currently contracting with the consulting firm Maven, Inc. run by Melonease Shaw, to lobby state legislators. The Maven contract started in 2009 and runs through Feb.28. Under the current arrangement, the district may be obligated for up to $234,000 for lobbying work.

The district relies on about 55 percent of its annual $3.2 billion dollar budget from the state. The district’s proposal letter said that the prospective lobbying firm will be responsible for arranging meetings in Harrisburg and Washington, planning events and providing interested parties with updates.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi criticized the proposal as misguided, saying “Those funds would be better used to improve educational performance. The city has a large delegation and a mayor, who can effectively make the case for the city’s schools.”

“This shows a fundamental lack of connection with reality,” he added, “considering the financial predicament that the School District finds itself in.”

The district will likely have a more difficult time explaining its problems at the state level, since a shift in power has changed the political environment in Harrisburg. The current lobbyist, Shaw, was closely connected to Dwight Evans, a Democrat in charge of the House Appropriations Committee until Nov. 16, when his fellow Democrats ousted him.

Newly-elected governor Tom Corbett is a Republican, and for the first time in nearly a decade, both House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans. Securing additional funds from the state will be far more difficult, as lawmakers are looking to solve their own budget deficit problems, said to be in the $4 billion to $5 billion.

The head of the House Education Committee, Rep. Paul Clymer said “This is not the time to invest a very large outlay of School District funds to tell many of us what we already know. In this time of fiscal restraint, that money should be used to educate the children.”

One lawmaker critical of Ackerman lately, Rep. Michael P. McGeehan, said he was flabbergasted by the news of the new lobbyist search. “This administration under Arlene Ackerman has exactly zero credibility in Harrisburg,” the Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia said. “The way they’ve handled the South Philadelphia High School crisis, the no-bid contracts, and the suspension of six good School District employees, who may be whistle-blowers, the legislature has serious questions about the conduct of this administration. . . . This is throwing good money after bad.”

Ackerman has been under close scrutiny since November when the Inquirer ran a series of stories detailing how she fired a company that had just started a $7.5 million no-bid emergency contract to place surveillance cameras in area high schools, and abruptly awarded it to a little-known company on the basis that it was a minority operation.

She later suspended six district employees, suspected of leaking information to the media about her controversial handling of the contract.

Critics say that Ackerman rushed to install the expensive surveillance systems in 19 area high schools after learning a state agency was about to release a highly-critical report saying the schools were dangerous. School district sources said that Ackerman wanted to install the cameras on an emergency basis to show that the district was on top of the situation, hoping to blunt adverse publicity against her and her staff.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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