Darrell Clarke’s School District Power Play

His real beef isn't about hirings or transparency. It's about influence for City Council.


Left, Darrell Clarke. Right, Bill Hite. | Photos by City Council and Associated Press.

City Council President Darrell Clarke has grown profoundly frustrated with the School District of Philadelphia in recent years. Now he looks poised to turn that frustration into action — and the impact on the district could be huge.

In private and in public, Clarke in recent weeks has ratcheted up pressure on the district and the School Reform Commission. He’s laying the groundwork for a campaign — one that likely will begin in earnest after likely next mayor Jim Kenney takes office in January — that is designed to win back some local control over the district, particularly its finances.

What’s his latest beef? Ostensibly, it was over a number of recent hirings and promotions in the school district’s central offices, which, after three straight years of fiscal crisis, is now staffed by a skeleton crew. Seriously. The number of empty desks in the (admittedly too big) district headquarters at 440 N. Broad is both depressing and alarming.

Clarke’s point, though, is that Superintendent William Hite came to City Council in the spring seeking cash on account of the dire needs in classrooms, not district HQ. He says, in essence, that Council didn’t approve $70 million* in new funding for it to be spent on senior bureaucrats making six figures.

At first, Clarke raised his concerns privately, sending a letter in early August to School Superintendent William Hite that read, in part: “I think it is important to understand how the hiring of these six individuals will enhance the educational experience of Philadelphia’s children.”

But after the Inquirer reported on Clarke’s letter last week, the council president took his case public — and made it crystal clear that this about a hell of a lot more than some high-priced aides for Hite.

“If you’re going to hold me accountable, then I need to be in a position to have some impact on the operation of the school district,” Clarke said in a recent interview on 900AM-WURD with Solomon Jones. “I have a 100 percent voting record for additional funding for schools. But the simple reality is I have no jurisdiction over how that money is spent, and I just don’t think that’s appropriate.”

What Clarke wants is a new fiscal oversight body comprised of City Council and General Assembly designees, among others. That would give Clarke some real ability to shape how the district operates. He’s cited PICA — that’s the state entity that keeps on eye on City Hall’s finances — as a possible model.

This episode show just how dysfunctional — and fundamentally unworkable — the dynamic between the district and Council has become.

In his letter to Hite (Citified obtained a copy, which you can see below), Clarke raised a none-too-subtle $25 million cudgel. Out of the $70 million in new spending Council has authorized for the schools this year, a $25 million cut will only be transferred to the District if and when it meets Council’s conditions. Clarke helpfully reminded Hite of that in his letter: “As you know, $25 million of the additional funding for the School District will become available only upon Council’s enactment of a transfer ordinance.”

What conditions must the district meet to get the money? Nobody knows. There’s nothing written down. It’s a string Clarke gets to pull to make the District dance, but Hite doesn’t know the tune (and I don’t think Clarke does either).

And so what unfolded was the same old Groundhog Day exchange that has come to define the district’s relationship with City Council.

Hite responds — at length — to Clarke’s letter. He explains that the vast majority of the money Council had appropriated was going to direct classroom expenses, and then defends the district-level hires as badly needed support for schools and for a district office that has been cut down to the bone. “Those were critical vacancies to fill, and I am confident that each of these colleagues will have a positive impact on our support for schools and the learning opportunities we provide for students,” Hite says.

To his four-page letter Hite also attaches 1) Detailed job descriptions for each of the six positions at issue, 2) An 11-page rehash of the district’s budget testimony and investment plan 3) A chart showing how lean Philadelphia’s central schools staff is compared to other cities, 4) And a document summarizing the district’s expansion of “learning networks.” You can find all of those documents embedded below.

Clarke is not impressed. In that interview with WURD, he describes Hite’s response as: “vague, broad based; ‘it helps us to enhance education,’ it didn’t give me the specifics on how those individuals would actually enhance the classroom …”

But here’s the thing: There is no information, no data, no conceivable argument that could convince Darrell Clarke those hires make sense. And — this is the bigger point — if Clarke wasn’t pissed off over this district expense, he’d be pissed over another one.

Clarke’s grievance isn’t so much over this particular District decision, though I don’t doubt that it irks him. His real beef is exactly what he expressed so succinctly on WURD: “If you’re going to hold me accountable, then I need to be in a position to have some impact on the operation of the school district.”

And it’s not just Clarke. A clear majority of Council feels this way. Each budget season, the District comes and asks for money — a lot of money. Council complains, then asks for data and information. The district hands over everything it can think of; spreadsheets, PowerPoint’s, thick budget documents. District staffers brief Council members in one-on-one meetings. And then Hite and a host of lieutenants troop over to City Hall to serve as human piñatas for day or two.

It all ends, invariably, with Council members complaining loudly they don’t get any answers or information from the district, followed by grudging votes to authorize more money for the district, albeit less than the district wants.

Sure, the district and Council both do things that make matters worse. District officials in Council chambers try — oh how they try — to hide their rolling eyes and chuckles at particularly irksome Council questions. They are not always successful, though, and Council members, and their staffers, take careful note of every last grimace. On the flipside, council members invariably ask a question or two that would try the patience and poise of Pope Francis. Cursive, anyone? (Sorry, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, but we stand by our initial description.)

But that’s just a sideshow, really. When Council (and everybody else) complains about schools spending, what they’re really railing against is the District’s structural deficit. What does that mean? The District’s fixed expenses, like pensions and debt payments, are growing more quickly than revenue. As long as that goes on, the district will make annual “emergency” appeals to the City and Harrisburg, until and unless that fundamental funding problem is permanently fixed (through either a big and growing new revenue source, or meaningful changes on pension costs or debt payments — or some combination of all three).

This wretched fiscal reality seems to elude some Council members. Too many appear genuinely baffled that the District asks for more money, ever year. ‘Why is the district always in crisis?,’ they ask aloud, as though it were actually a mystery, and not the subject of countless news articles, and tallied up in black in white in a district budget anyone can see online (unlike, for instance, City Council’s budget).

But Clarke isn’t hazy on such details. Not at all. “There needs to be something drastic. There needs to be additional funding, there needs to be some restructuring of the debt, there needs to be some things that deal with the structural deficit,” Clarke said on WURD.

He gets it. He’s just pissed that Council can’t do anything about it. But you know what? Neither can the District.

So, there’s not really any standard of transparency the District could meet that would satisfy City Council. Clarke’s frustration, while completely valid, isn’t really rooted in Hite’s dealings with Council. And for less engaged Council members? I’d be shocked, in a good way, if even half the chamber was reviewing in a meaningful way the information the district already supplies. Deeper fiscal analysis is not going to placate the crew that isn’t so much as skimming the briefings it gets right now.

No, the real source of tension between Council and the District is that Council has decided that, if it’s going to get hit up each year for additional school funds, it wants a real say in how the District runs.

Politically speaking, this is novel, and interesting — and perhaps even gutsy. In past years, when the District could rely on a quasi-adequate state funding and the city’s contribution to the schools grew only as property values increased, Council wanted nothing to do with the schools. Neither have many mayors, for that matter.

Right now, Council lacks the legislative authority to do anything to the schools apart from attaching strings to funding and brawling with Hite and the SRC in public. Could Council actually get a say? Ultimately, it’s up to either the General Assembly or the SRC itself (and the SRC’s appointing powers, i.e., Gov. Tom Wolf and likely next mayor Jim Kenney). Wolf is already on record favoring the abolition of the School Reform Commission. Kenney, though, has been more equivocal on the SRC.

Regardless, I see only one scenario where Clarke eases up: Wolf prevails in this and future budget battles with Harrisburg Republicans, and state funding of city schools once again becomes reasonable and reliable.

Short of that, Hite and the district better get used to dealing with Darrell Clarke.

Darrell Clarke and Bill Hite Correspondence