Can Lawyers Save Philly’s Schools? Bill Fedullo Thinks So.

Chancellor of the Philly Bar talks about equal education and why law firms need to sponsor public schools.

william-fedulloBill Fedullo isn’t necessarily anybody’s idea to be the savior of Philly schools. He’s an attorney, one of the city’s best-known and most-powerful — and in January, he was inaugurated as chancellor of the 13,0000-member Philadelphia Bar Association. But it’s from that perch that he’s made saving city schools a priority.

He talked with Philly Mag recently about why he has undertaken the crusade and what lawyers can do to support public schools.

When you were inaugurated as the chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, you immediately announced that you want the perpetual funding crisis facing Philly schools to be a top priority. That’s not the usual purview of the bar association. Why do you think it should get involved?

Well, there were a couple reasons. This year was the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education and I realized that I want to celebrate that case, to reflect on what it meant. As I was doing that, I realized that the promise of equal education was not being fulfilled. And in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia in particular, the finding was such that you saw ads in the paper that the schools needed things like paper, tissues, and No. 2 pencils, basic things. I felt if we as a bar association really need to do something about that. I was trying to think of ways in which we can do that. One was to advocate for full-funding of schools, through government. A dedicated source of funding.

And secondly was to get law firms involved in sponsoring schools in whatever way they could. Now, some law firms have already done that, some firms are already involved with schools to their credit. I want to publicize those firms, but I also wanted to get other firms involved in doing the same thing.

You’ve already started a “sponsor a school” initiative, which aims to get 100 local law firms to sponsor a school by the year’s end. What does that sponsorship involve exactly?

We are  working with the school district — on April 7th I believe there’s going to be an announcement. … The school district is going to announce exactly what the protocols are gonna be, for the sponsorship of the school.

There’s going to be different components for different lawyers and different law firms. Some lawyers aren’t going to be able to fulfill financial components simply because the young lawyers are not making enough money, but they want to do something. There are other firms that want to pay money, but don’t really have the time to send people to schools to be counselors or to be mentors. …

So we’ve turned to the school district and Stacy Holland and Dr. Hite for this, and Michael Davis, too, to help us come up with a protocol that would fit all the groups of people who really want to be involved in this.

You’ve also established an education task force led by Judge John Younge and defense lawyer Jeff Lindy. What is the job of that task force?

We intend to have an education summit, with all the people who have expressed interest in being involved in this … For example, we have the ACE program program with the court system, in which we send judges and lawyers to schools already. There’s a program in Temple, in which Roberta West has a program in which different high schoolers debate topics, ones that are interested especially in becoming attorneys. There’s Philadelphia Reads and Philadelphia Futures, which my wife was involved in. There’s a lot of different opportunities for attorneys, and not just attorneys … members of the business community have contacted me about helping.

There are quite a few powerhouse names on the bar association sponsor-a-school page, ranging from the US Attorney’s Office here in Philadelphia to local judges, to some of the city’s most prominent firms. All that legal firepower could probably be extremely formidable in lobbying for education funding in Harrisburg.

Part of what I thought about doing for this resolution [is that] anybody who is elected to office should be in compliance with the Pennsylvania Constitution, which basically provides for education of our young. And that means full funding. And that means equal funding. And that also means a dedicated source of funding. Politicians of all stripes have contacted me … not just Democrats, Independents or Republicans have told me the same thing: “This is something that we should be funding, and this is something that we need to find the funds for.” We can’t have a generation of kids who aren’t getting an education.

It is far too costly to not provide the education. The cost to send somebody to jail is approximately $35,000 a year. If we spend $15,000 or $20,000 per student, we would make sure that kids wouldn’t be going to jail by getting an education. In fact, I was at program yesterday at the US Attorney’s office led by Dr. Sandra Bloom. We talked about the devastating effects growing up in a violent atmosphere has on kids — and for that matter when they become adults — and how to change that paradigm. … My hope is that in the next three years we really turn the funding issue around.

What’s the end game for the bar association? Is this a long-term partnership, or are you hoping to spend a few years helping the District get on its own two feet?

I have asked the firms involved in this, including my firm, to make a minimum of a three-year commitment. I hope it extends indefinitely, I hope it is a permanent thing for many firms. Some have been involved in this before I made the pitch. So I am hoping that as [they] do something good … firms will get that joy that I got. You know I went up to Dobson School, which is the school that my friend is adopting, last Friday. It was just marvelous to see the kids, to meet with them, and to enjoy the little glee club thing that they had, the little dance thing they had. It was just a really special day. And we got to judge a decoration award contest, kids were doing to prepare for the school testing that was coming up soon. You know, moments like that, you don’t often get as an attorney. You really don’t.

I think a lot of attorneys can experience the same experience if they get involved in this. And I think they will.

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