The Challengers: Derek Green Wants to Improve Education For Kids With Special Needs
All week, Citified will be featuring Q&As with leading at-large City Council Democratic challengers on topics of their choosing. The prompt was simple: if elected, what’s a problem you would you prioritize, and how would you address it? To keep the conversation substantive and on-point, we asked the candidates to focus on a relatively narrow question (i.e., not “schools,” or “crime.”)
Derek Green was a top aide to Philadelphia City Councilwoman Marian Tasco, an assistant district attorney, a deputy city solicitor, and a small business lender.
That’s a solid resume for a candidate for Democratic City Council At-Large.
But the No. 1 thing going for Green in this race, perhaps, is the fact that he scored the top position on the May 19th primary ballot in a lottery administered by election officials. That means his name will appear first among the City Council At-Large contenders, which is paramount because candidates at the top of the ballot are thought to do better than those at the bottom in races where voters aren’t paying close attention.
Green told Citified he wanted to talk about the education of children with special needs. Citified’s questions have been paraphrased and Green’s answers have been edited lightly for clarity.
Citified: Why did you pick this topic?
Green: For me, education is an important issue, and my son was diagnosed with autism at 30 months.
Citified: What has it been like to have a child with special needs in the city’s public school system?
Green: We went to our local public school, Houston Elementary School in Mt. Airy, and from there we were basically trying to figure out what would be the best environment for him. And it worked out well because we were able to talk with the principal as well as the teacher and the staff there, and they really provided a welcome environment for Julian and so he was okay in kindergarten. But when it was time for first grade, it was much more challenging.
Green: Because he being in a first grade environment, it was a little more advanced for him. And so we were able to talk with our principal friend about creating an autism support class at Houston, and so they were very encouraging. Over the years, we’ve been able to grow that to three autism support classes at Houston.
So I know that some other parents in the school district have not had that same positive experience.
Citified: Right. You’re a very involved and savvy parent who knows how the system works. Not every parent has those skills. If elected to Council, what would you do to make sure that more parents and students have the same positive experience that your family has had?
Green: I think one of the biggest issues is education, information. Because even when Julian was diagnosed, we were not sure what does this mean, what does it mean to have a child on the spectrum? We did a lot of research to get that information. So one the things that I’d try to do is provide information to people. My wife and I have spoken at the school district, at various churches, but I would like to bring some kind of committee on Council dealing with children with special needs, just to provide information. There’s so many parents in the city of Philadelphia dealing with this issue.
And there’s a lot of different programs in the city of Philadelphia. People with autism don’t know about it and sometimes the organizers of these programs don’t have the resources to do marketing. Julian participates in a autism basketball program that I learned about from one of the therapy support service staff at Houston Elementary. If Julian was not at Houston, I may not have heard about it.
Citified: Councilman Dennis O’Brien has been a vocal advocate for children with autism. Do you think he’s been effective?
Green: I worked with Councilman O’Brien before he even came into City Council, and I would continue to do that. I think he’s done a good job. But it is a big issue.
Citified: Do you believe charter schools adequately educate children with special needs?
Green: I think each charter school is different. When children have an individualized education plan, we have to make sure that each charter school, just like every traditional public school, [follows that] IEP. Charter schools, just like private schools, may not have the resources to provide all the education options for children with autism.
Citified: What can City Council do to hold charter or traditional public schools accountable when it comes to educating children with special needs? Every year, we hear Council members say that they don’t have the ability to provide much oversight. And there isn’t an appointee on the School Reform Commission chosen by Council.
Green: I disagree with that to some degree. Because for example, there have been situations in the past where various city departments do not do what Council was looking to do, and so during the budget process, Council took the funding for that department and put it into the Council budget until we got things resolved.
I mean, that’s a way to hold people accountable. But also not just waiting until the annual budget process. I think we should be meeting with the school district on a regular basis, look at their cash flow, look at their resources, and then also partnering with local elected officials outside of Philadelphia so we can lobby collectively in Harrisburg.
I’ve had friends on both Abington and Lower Merion school boards, and they’re dealing with some of the same challenges of having a finite amount of resources. … So I think by creating a regional coalition, we can advocate in Harrisburg why we need a weighted funding formula that impacts not just the city of Philadelphia, but also children all over the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Citified: The education of children with special needs, in part, comes down to money. Do you support Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed 9 percent property tax hike to help fund the schools?
Green: I don’t think we should do a 9 percent tax increase. If you look at the budget, it’s an over $4 billion dollar entity. I think there’s ways that we can look at how to bring resources back into education funding. There’s been discussions over the years about shifting the amount of resources between the city and the school district, and maybe increase the amount to the school district as opposed to the city. And also look at things like the current fund balance, and also looking at the funds allocated for staff and various departments as well as fringe benefits, especially those staff that have not been hired.
Citified: You’re talking about shifting more of Philadelphia’s property tax revenues to the school district and away from the city. That would require cuts to the city. What would you cut?
Green: I would look at staffing because you have every department say, “We need to have X amount of employees.” But the actual employees that are currently there may be a smaller amount. So what’s the difference between the two, and would they realistically be able to hire those employees during the fiscal year?
Citified: So you’re not talking about laying anyone off. You’re talking about hiring fewer people in the future.
Green: I’m talking about future hiring.
Citified: Would hiring fewer people raise enough money to give the school district $103 million in the coming year? That’s how much school officials say they need from the city.
Green: I think we just look at everything. I mean there’s other things. People talk about PILOTs. We look at all the possibilities of addressing additional funding for education without automatically going to a 9.3 percent real estate tax increase.
Citified: Almost no candidate has come out in support of Nutter’s property tax increase. While there are plenty of reasons to critique his plan, it’s at least a straightforward and sustainable way to fund the schools. Is it just impossible to support a tax hike when you’re running for office?
Green: You had a situation like AVI [Nutter’s property tax overhaul], which just happened not long ago. You had people impacted by that. We had tax increases over the years and people are really hurting. I mean we still have not come out of the recession, and I think before we get to a tax increase, let’s make sure that we look at all the options on the table first.