Insider: Darrell Clarke Won His Needless School District Power Play

McCalla: But what good does it do the kids?

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke. | Copyright of the Philadelphia City Council. Produced and Edited by Michael Falconi

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke. | Copyright of the Philadelphia City Council. Produced and Edited by Michael Falconi.

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.) 

The laughter and colliding high-fives you heard recently in the vicinity of lower North Broad Street were those of Council President Darrell Clarke and school boss William Hite (+ entourages) celebrating their sealing of an agreement that allows Council greater access to school budget figures, management details and provide general fiscal oversight.

Clarke says the agreement “is a document that will not only get a consensus, but it will actually require that we see each other a whole lot.” There will be quarterly reports to council on hiring and meetings to discuss those reports and handle general inquiries. CFOs will meet with CFOs, and so forth.

Politicians being practitioners of “the gesture,” there was a real-live signing ceremony to communicate that this was a Very Big Deal. In case we weren’t properly impressed, Clarke and School Reform Commission Chief Marjorie Neff later jointly announced the agreement was “historic.”

The Clark/Neff announcement contains language suggesting the practical independence of the School Reform Commission has been diminished. Phrases like “our common goal,” “we will continue to fight,” “we cannot do this work alone,” all indicate a new concord that has these two in tandem, in agreement on the direction of the district. The governor still appoints a majority of the commission, but the new guv is a Democrat and that’s a difference that makes all the difference.

Given that Clarke, for months, held hostage $25 million to coerce this deal, one might think it was actually — well — significant. It ain’t. City Council has “forever” had annual hearings to review district requests for cash. They’ve always had the legal right to say “nope, not gonna do it.” The mere fact that Council interdicted district loot is proof they have all the clout they really need.

What will all these new reports, meetings and compulsory camaraderie tell Council that it doesn’t already know? Does Clarke suspect Hite is hiding gold bullion in the basement of Martin Luther King High and that he’s just pretending to be broke?

The district is broke for reasons we all understand: severe education funding cuts, courtesy of former Gov. Tom Corbett, and a huge outflow of cash to charter schools that has come at the expense of traditional, public schools. Is there some mismanagement? Of course. Our public schools were performing poorly before the Corbett cuts and the explosive growth of charter schools.

The fact is, our school kids suffer from the neglect and disinterest of our elected officials and this deal is just another example of the politics of distraction and power that diverts us from real problems. Too many kids can’t read and it’s no more complicated than that.

Clarke is a uniquely muscular politician who gets what he wants and blocks what he doesn’t want. Remember how he seemed to single-handedly, and without a shred of transparency, block consideration of the PGW sale? With the power of his Office (and a conspicuous disposition to use it), he told Mayor Nutter to pound sand. Objections from the press and public rose and fell like cheap arrows, clumsily aimed. Clarke is powerful.

The very idea that he couldn’t get regular reports from the school district without a petulant power play is something only a naif would swallow.

If Clarke wants more influence over the district, why doesn’t he lobby Harrisburg to get the SRC repealed? After all, for the first time in the history of our city, City Council has its own high-paid emissaries to the state capitol. They lobby separately from and, sometimes, in competition with Nutter’s lobbyists. Clarke is powerful.

Clarke’s latest power play may already be bearing fruit, albeit not one designed to make kids better equipped for jobs or college. Back in May, the school district announced it was considering a plan to outsource the hiring of school nurses (pre-power play). On October 21st, Hite issued a statement (post-power play) saying the school district will not explore the outsourcing of school nurses. More interesting is that Clarke took a victory lap by issuing a statement the same day of Hite’s announcement. “I commend the District for its responsiveness and flexibility on a matter of great concern to myself (“myself” is not a word to be overlooked here) and many of my constituents.” In the Clarke press release, he rubs Hite’s nose in it, writing, “Hite, himself, admits lessons have been learned.”

Clarke has made himself a powerful factor in the daily operations of the school district, and the massive spending that supports it. A cynic might also say that Clarke also now has “historic” access to jobs, professional service contracts and vendor opportunities. The cost to Clarke? He is now an inextricable confederate of the elephantine rubble that is our public school system.

The motives of politicians are often opaque, charmingly inscrutable. So, I’m bollixed as to why basement level test scores, staggering dropout rates and charity drives to supply classrooms don’t animate a political response as forceful as the need to play “who’s the boss”?

On the Titanic, I imagine there were a few cheap flaps over who’s really in charge of the lifeboats and whether the band should have continued to play. But, it wouldn’t have required the Wisdom of Solomon to see daftness and ego for what it was. In the main, our kids can neither properly read nor write and parents with means are leaving the city or lying about their residences to get what they deserve and politicians won’t provide.

Jay McCalla has served as a city deputy managing director, a director for the Redevelopment Authority and as chief of staff to Councilman Rick Mariano.