Sunday, February 24, 2008

How to Grade the RSD's Homework: Part 3

Catch up with me y'all.

The Recovery School District of New Orleans, the RSD, is being shady.

We gotta get in their face now.

Check out:

Part 1

Part 2

It increasingly appears that RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas will be leaving us sooner rather than later. He, himself, admitted he'd be here less than three years. Now, it's not a stretch to speculate that he'll be gone at the end of this spring, after just one year on the job. His family did not relocate from Chicago. I think he's going to take another stab at running for governor of Illinois. That election is in 2010. Just google that race and you'll see his name is mentioned as a potential contender. He'll need a year or two to get his money in order. And the longer he stays here, the more likely it is that the problems we're discussing will be attributed directly to his administration.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series focused on the school district budget and Paul Vallas' less-than-stellar record of financial stewardship during his time in Philadelphia. This was critical last week, as Mr. Vallas released the RSD's first budget since the storm. While the quotes in the T-P characterize the budget as a stunning achievement, I think there is ample reason to fear that history is repeating itself.

This installment will also discuss some of Mr. Vallas' record in Philly but it will also apply those findings to an issue of immediate concern here in New Orleans.

Part 3: Transparency, Citizen Involvement, and the Super Duper Master Plan

One of the centerpieces of Paul Vallas' game plan for reinventing the public school system of the Philadelphia was an enormous capital improvement program which Mr. Vallas promised would result in tons of new school construction and renovation.

How much new construction and renovation?

Well, unfortunately that's not as easy a question to answer as we might like.

I can tell you that there was a $1.5 billion in bonds allocated for this program.

And I can tell you that there are those that are wondering what happened to it.
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In an op-ed to the Philadelphia Inquirer after Vallas had come to New Orleans, City Controller Alan Butkovitz wrote: (it has become archived, sorry I can't give a real link)

Right from the start we encountered resistance from the former CEO Paul Vallas when we questioned the insufficient progress and costs related to his $1.5 billion capital building program. It had a balance of $469 million - but little to show for it in the way of school construction. Vallas' original plan called for at least 20 schools to be built. At this time, we can only identify seven new schools that have been completed.

Ground broke on some construction way back in 2004. That there wouldn't be a clear accounting of what was built and when and for how much is shocking to me and should raise immediate red flags for everyone here in New Orleans given that the RSD is promising such a massive rebuilding program.

I called Harvey Rice, the First Deputy City Controller of the City of Philadelphia, to get more information about the capital improvement program. This is some of what he told me:

"There were two criticisms. One, we wanted to know what he did with the money. What did he build? No one has gotten that. We haven't gotten it. I don't even know if they have it in a document where they can succinctly sit down with you or anyone and say 'this is what we did'." - "We tried to do it on our own, spent a lot of hours going through newspaper articles, press statements, other statements that he made and trying to piece it all together... it's just been a difficult task." - "The other criticism was... that the school district wasn't spending it. They still have about half a billion dollars left... If you're not spending it, each year, material and labor costs increase, especially in Philadelphia, which is a union town. We thought if you're not spending it now, that sometime later you're not going to get the bang for your buck."
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I called the Philadelphia School District directly and asked for information related to the capital improvement program. Nobody got back to me. (I'm a nobody though)

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Mr. Vallas was less than transparent in Philadelphia on scores of other issues related to audits and investigations of the school district. In op-eds, quotes to the media, and testimony in front of City Council, the City Controller's office routinely expressed their frustration with Mr. Vallas' stonewalling of information requests related to his budget deficits and the no-bid contracts I discussed earlier in this series.

I also have reports from the City Controller's office that detail attempts to subvert an investigation into the condition of public school facilities in 2006:

"The Controller's office is troubled by the School District's failure to cooperate and in denying Controller inspectors access to 10 schools that had been randomly selected for inspection. In addition, the Controller's Office is deeply troubled by some of the findings its inspectors uncovered in 11 of the schools they were permitted to inspect."

The inspections that were allowed to occur revealed several structural and maintenance issues that required emergency attention.

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So we may want to be careful here in New Orleans. The Recovery School District and Mr. Vallas are responsible for the rebuilding of a large portion (that's another story) of the public schools in this city.

They're in the process of crafting or have already created a Master Plan.

Why am I not sure? Well, read on.

The citizens ought to have been part of that process. They ought to be part of that process.

Some people have already been asking questions. I'm sorry to say that their concerns have not been allayed.

For six weeks or so, the RSD has been holding public meetings that are an embarrassing farce on a couple of levels:

First, as B.Rox observed, RSD surveys and questionnaires are worded to be leading. The meeting seemed to be an exercise in illusions.

The illusion being that the community has any say in the future of the schools.

The community does not.

While the RSD has been getting the input of the community, the decisions have already been made.

In December, Matt McBride compiled a list of 25 schools for which the RSD had already pulled demolition permits.

Alan Gutierrez
also discusses the public cheating process.

Karen Gadbois has been keeping an eye on the Lockett School's journey to an eternal empty lot.

So the community is being told to show up to these meetings and to give input into what they'd like to see from the RSD long term. At the same time, the RSD is working to demolish as many schools as possible while the city's demolition permit process continues to evade the most basic controls and safeguards.
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So what is the RSD up to?

I'm afraid it won't be so easy to find out.

As everyone knows, the state of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans have abysmal reputations for transparency. Those governments give away no-bid contracts to friends and supporters like it's free money.

There is no reason to be anything other than suspicious.

We've been told to think differently of Mr. Paul Vallas. Every local media story here has confirmed Mr. Vallas' cultivated national image of vision and renewal.

I have attempted to explain in this three part series that Mr. Vallas' sterling reputation is not warranted if one actually examines his record in Philadelphia.

He was not transparent there.
He has plenty of friends and supporters that rely on no-bid contracts.

There is no reason to be anything other than suspicious.

And, recently, more and more of us have begun to express that suspicion.

Go read:

G Bitch and Bark, Bugs, Leaves, and Lizards on a pathetic attempt to inform parents of school choice options.

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The RSD needs to start answering questions NOW.
The RSD needs to operate with real transparency NOW.

Citizens need to provide the pressure.
Our mainstream media and elected officials seem reluctant.
We do not have to be.

This list has RSD official email addresses and phone numbers.

Be an annoying curmudgeon and call those numbers and email those emails.

Prove the power of citizen involvement by demanding a response from the RSD.

3 comments:

Leigh C. said...

You're not a nobody. You're a mayoral candidate and, by God, those folks in Philly need to start treating you like one!

Who's more in need of acting like a curmudgeon now?

Besides, isn't all the public school info under the FOIA?

E said...

i believe it is under FOIA.

the problem is getting that request processed in an amount of time that allows us to address further issues.

G Bitch said...

Wow, excellent series. I had my suspicions about Vallas from the beginning, mostly because we were to believe he was, finally, The Answer. And I never got the impression that he was really prepared for the fiasco the school "system" is and the endemic problems worsened by the floods and post-flood opportunism. Rock ON, E!