The Challengers: Helen Gym’s Aim — To Make Council Holds Schools Accountable

A series of Citified Q&As with the top Democratic challengers in the at-large City Council race.

Helen Gym | Photo by Alex Hogan

Helen Gym | Photo by Alex Hogan

All week, Citified is 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.”)

Longtime schools activist Helen Gym is running an at-large campaign powered by an enthusiastic grassroots network of supporters, the backing of teacher unions and her own indomitable personality. Her presence on Council would surely shakeup a a legislative body that is, plainly, sick and tired of talking about the city’s struggling schools and the questions of how to fund them.

Gym would make schools her central focus if she is elected to Council. In particular, Gym wants to dramatically change Council’s approach to schools oversight, and that’s the subject she chose to discuss with Citified.

Citified: You want to talk about oversight. Not just City Council’s oversight of the School District, but of the mayor, and the mayor’s role vis-à-vis the School District. Is that right?

Gym: I want us to be really thoughtful about the city’s engagement with the district. One of the things I’ve done — when we helped start the Notebook, we were very focused on the school budget and looking at data and research over time. And we’re looking at budgets not just in terms of how numbers line up on a spreadsheet, but their impact on classrooms and teaching and learning and our ability to achieve the things we say we want to accomplish.

Because of that, I think I’m better prepared than anybody else currently sitting on City Council to really take a look and understand the district’s budget and hold the district accountable for what it’s saying.

Citified: So what does that look like? How do you actually do that?

Gym: Well, one is the district has a statement that every eight-year-old will be on reading level. I would want to know what our reading specialists look like. I’d want to do know how many kindergarteners had access to a functional school library. I’d want to know what class size looked like in K-2, and how that had changed over time. I’d definitely want to know about special needs students and how they’re being supported, and what our language access looks like for K-2. I don’t see anybody in City Council looking at that in a very serious way.

Citified: So what’s the mechanism for that? City Council members will complain privately that the district doesn’t respect Council — that they ask for information and it’s not forthcoming. What’s the mechanism you would use to get the district to take Council seriously and respect its oversight role?

Gym: If council is serious about accountability it should hold hearings and conduct reports. It has subpoena power. It has the ability to compel testimony. It certainly has the right to access any and all data — they just have to know what data to ask for. That’s where I see the problem.

Council schedules all of one day of testimony in budget hearings for the district, and it’s the third largest budget in the state of Pennsylvania. I don’t think you’re going to get good data in one day of hearings. And often it’s not even one full day. It’s just a couple of hours of prepared testimony. There’s very little data provided other than the district’s budget. There’s very little research done ahead of time, and there’s hardly any follow up that happens afterward.

Citified: So when would you start—

Gym: September. It would be a year round issue. I would not have a school funding conversation about taxation on May 26. If I were in office, this would be a year-round conversation. We’d be looking at need and at what was happening in schools from August through October in the fall. We’d be making proposals by November and December. I would not want to see the mayor unilaterally announce something and Council be forced into a reactionary situation. I think we want to see a dialogue that is informed by data and research that had been made public throughout the year. I’m trying to lead an agenda, not just respond to one or react to one.

There’s another thing I wanted to point out. I’m deeply troubled by city officials who are acting on behalf of private interest to impact school funding. In particular I would say that the decision, for example, to request a TIF for PREIT and the Gallery redesign was very troubling. It seems inappropriate to me that city officials would go before the School District leaving out the private operators and developers from being held publicly accountable or even publicly questioned by the district while city officials demand that school that’s don’t have any money pay into a 20-year TIF that will give a $55 million benefit to the owners of the Gallery mall. It seems inappropriate to me at this time to have city officials behave in that way, and that needs to end.

Citified: Well, that’s the Nutter administration acting in what it thinks is the best interest of the city overall. What could you as a Council member do to change that?

Gym: Any kind of city official acting on that behalf either needs to come before City Council or something along those lines. No city official should be representing the interests of a private entity before the School District. Whether that’s something that can be handled legislatively or something that’s more of a political call is yet to be determined, but that is something I would raise very seriously. I want our role as city officials to be protecting the public interests, not to be vehicles to advance private interests at the cost of young people.

Citified: Your school-funding plan is concrete and realistic inasmuch as it outlines real measures that could generate real cash and doesn’t require Harrisburg’s help. But politically it’s a difficult sell: tax hikes and PILOTs. How would you convince Council and the mayor to go along?

Gym: There have been some really important advances around this. My being in office will be a major indicator of how much my agenda resonates with the public … I think if I do win there’ll be no question about who brought me there and the public mandate for school funding— that is pretty much out there already — but will be crystallized and clarified with this election.

I do think one of my strengths is trying to build unusual types of coalitions. You’ll be surprised at the number of individuals and entities that understand the need for a fair share approach to funding. … People need to understand this as being a collective lift. If it can be presented as a collective effort to lift our young people up, I think that more people will get on board.

I’ve always felt the conversation around schools was very, very reductive: “what is the least we can possibly accomplish at the last minute that will just make this go away.” I think that approach has governed a lot of our school funding decisions. The cigarette tax is a great example. … I do not see current members of City Council creating the sort of breadth of understanding that schools are a collective effort, they require recurring and sustainable revenue over time, they need careful attention …

If we put forward smart policies that don’t just talk about school funding but actually tackled other things as well, such as fair taxation or looking at land value for example — I think school funding can go hand in hand with smart development, better taxation and a very fair share approach toward who’s paying for schools.

Citified: You just addressed this in part, but some of your critics suggest you’re just a one issue candidate. Schools. What do you say to that?

Gym: Well one, I’m a candidate that can be identified with an issue. I’m glad for that. I’d like a lot of the other candidates to be clearly defined on what they actually stand for.

I’m not apologetic for carrying deeply about the number one issue in this city, which is schools and the responsible care of our young people… I’ve never felt that schools was about one issue. I’ve always seen the issue of education to be a vehicle for understanding many different things in this city: economic justice, racial justice, neighborhood issues, language access issues. The schools umbrella is large.

… Those who see me as a single issue candidate are interested in a very reductive approach to schools that they want to put into a box. And tuck away, and pull out whenever it’s politically convenient.