OPINION: The One Big Thing Missing From Allan Domb’s Plan to Grow the City

Can we get 10 more Centrals?

WTP B26 Audrey 1” by See below – Wiki Takes Philadelphia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

As we’ve unfortunately learned, some business leaders may not be the most effective political leaders. But Allan Domb doesn’t fall into that category.

Since taking office as an at-large City Council member last year, Domb has dived into the job with enthusiasm, commitment, and energy. He doesn’t need to be doing this. He’s made plenty of money selling and managing real estate over the past few decades. But clearly he wants to make a difference. He wants Philadelphia to grow — and not just because the city’s growth will help him sell and manage more real estate. But because he cares about the city’s future.

To that end, Domb has outlined three steps to grow Philadelphia. He wants to take 100,000 people out of poverty, create 100,000 new jobs, and bring 100,000 new residents to the city. “What we need to do is expand our base,” he told columnist Stu Bykofsky recently. “Bring more people into the store to pay for the overhead.” He plans to do this through better collection of overdue taxes, more education about the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and, most important, attracting tech companies to the area.

Is this a sensible plan? It’s a start. But there’s one big thing missing that could make it a winner.

There’s no question that the city has seen has an influx of young millennials and empty-nesters (like me) over the past few years. This demographic has helped to increase property values, gentrify areas once considered wastelands, and bring in larger retailers and restaurants. But there’s a huge population gap. Why? Because all those younger people who move into town start to have babies. They stick it out in the city for a few years but are ultimately driven out because they have no answer to this question: Where do I send my kid to school?

Sure, if you’ve got $30K after-tax money lying around, you can send a child to a good private school. Or maybe your kid is smart enough to get into Masterman, Central, or Girls High. But after that, there’s a huge dropoff in options. Local public schools are a mess. Independent schools are hit or miss. Catholic schools are struggling. You tell me — besides Masterman, Central, or Girls High, what public high schools in Philadelphia are sending more than 90 percent of their graduating classes to the upper tier of universities?

That’s the issue that Domb’s plan must address if it is to succeed.

People move out of Philadelphia and migrate to Lower Merion, Abington, and Cherry Hill because of schools. Everyone wants their kids to get a good education. Everyone wants the next generation to have better opportunities than the current one. When you have a good school system, you attract good companies because good companies want to attract good employees and good employees want to live where there’s a good school system. It’s fact … and it’s obvious.

Here’s what I see when I visit Central High, from which I graduated in 1982: The kids want to be there. The teachers want to be there. The alumni are active. The place has energy. And its graduates succeed. People are desperate for their children to go there. And if they can’t, these people take the next best option: the suburbs.

If Domb and City Council were to set an objective to create 10 more Central/Masterman K-12 magnet schools within the next five years, then more people will want to stay in Philadelphia. This will attract companies. This will result in pulling people out of poverty, providing jobs, and adding residents to the city. How to achieve those goals?

Bring in the private sector. Raise individual and corporate funding (like Central does). Partner with those larger technology companies that Domb covets to create high-level schools in return for media coverage, tax breaks, testing grounds for new products, a source of new recruits, and, yes, goodwill. Make it competitive not only for students but for teachers to be part of these great new core schools and compensate them accordingly. Create a core of education excellence in the city. How many Fortune 1000 corporations have billion-dollar philanthropic arms? How many billionaires are sitting right now in Silicon Valley itching to “make the world a better place”? Plenty.

Will this be easy? Is anything in Philadelphia ever? There will be the usual outrage from unions, civil servants, anti-capitalists, educators, and plenty of others. But c’mon, Allan. You’re a successful businessman. You’ve can likely sell an igloo to an Eskimo in February (and a to condo me too, thank you). So don’t tell me that you can’t sell a plan to build 10 great new magnet schools in the city with the help of a few tech billionaires. You must if you want your growth plan to succeed.

Gene Marks, CPA, runs a ten-person technology consulting firm in Bala Cynwyd. He writes daily for the Washington Post and weekly for Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, and the Huffington Post.