Monday, October 27, 2008

Correct Me If I'm Wrong

Late last week, Paul Vallas wrote a letter to the editor of the Times-Picayune defending the Recovery School District's controversial school facilities master plan. In it, Mr. Vallas pushes back on recent reports by the Cowen Institute and the Bureau of Governmental Research that criticize the master plan's financial underpinning.

In short, because funding is concrete for only phase 1 of the facilities master plan, the independent groups argue that shortfalls made more likely by the financial crisis could lead to vast discrepancies in the quality of educational facilities in New Orleans with polar haves and have-nots.

In his letter to the T-P, Vallas addressed the uncertain funding structure after Phase 1 ends in 2013:

Phase 1 is funded by federal disaster recovery dollars that must be spent on building schools. While we're sure that we will be able to fund much of Phase 2, we know that in the years to come, the city and state will have to step up to the plate to raise capital funds to fully implement the plan. That is not surprising, or unusual.

In a sense, Paul Vallas is correct. Local and state governments do often have to share the costs of major projects such as the one the RSD is currently proposing. What I'm not sure of, is how usual it is for a project to begin without a plan to win funding. For instance, when a baseball team wants to hold taxpayers ransom for a new publicly-financed stadium, what they do is draw up a blueprint for their new digs and negotiate with the state and city for a plan to share the cost of stadium construction, land acquisitions, and related infrastructure improvements. That sounds similar to what the RSD is proposing but it really isn't. In this example, the team secures whatever legislation they need from the state and from the local city council and then begins construction. What they certainly do not do, is start digging holes into the ground with only enough money to build a third of the stadium. Here, the RSD wants to start construction without any concrete mechanisms to bankroll the later phases of the plan. Phase 1 alone insufficiently meets the needs of our district by concentrating precious dollars into just a few buildings without having evaluated the efficacy of spreading those dollars more prudently into targeted renovations.

The other thing I'd point out in this case is Paul Vallas' record from his time in Philadelphia. I wrote a three part series about this last year. Recall that Mr. Vallas was fired by Philadelphia's School Reform Commission after running unpredicted budget deficits running over $100 million. He seemed to have established a pattern. Mr. Vallas would spend furiously to implement certain aspects of his academic program and when he was forced to go to the state capital or to city council to defend a "surprise" deficit, it Vallas that would apply the pressure, goading lawmakers to "step up to the plate" to make up for his lack of fiscal restraint. To a certain extent, this is admirable because urban school districts are so badly underfunded. In practice, however, it provides for very short-term incremental progress. Vallas was successful once or twice in squeezing out a little bit extra to make up for the over-spending but it is never too long before lawmakers get tired of the act. Of course, in Philadelphia, contributing to Vallas' budget woes were huge increases in the number and value of no-bid contracts and unethical benefits paid out to Vallas consultants.

Here, Mr. Vallas has followed the Philadelphia pattern in an exaggerated sense, having already been raked by BESE for poorly formulated budgets and busted by the T-P and I for inappropriately large consultant contracts - including one to a woman forced to resign after unethical reimbursements paid by the Philly school district.

Also, let us consider Vallas' record in terms of spending on facilities from his time in Philadelphia. This passage is from something I wrote as part of the three part series:

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."

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)

Mr. Vallas has been adamant about the need to move quickly to begin schools construction on the master plan, threatening that federal funding could be lost if more time is taken to review the proposed spending. This is an interesting argument given his failure to spend money he was granted in Philadelphia.



This is the issue I wanted to raise when I titled the post.

My understanding throughout this entire process was that Mr. Vallas was not particularly involved in the master plan. Rather, the sense I've always gotten was that this was the other Paul's brainchild. Pastorek hired Parsons-Concordia to create the master plan before Paul Vallas was brought to New Orleans. It was Paul Pastorek and RSD Director of Facilities Planning Constance Caruso who worked with the hired firm to craft the document. It was Paul Pastorek who rejected a draft of the document in May that forced the delay of the release of the plan until late August.

From what I've gathered, Mr. Vallas's role in crafting the master plan had been limited to academic programming - the negotiation of different curricular themes for different schools. His job with the RSD is as an administrator of the schools themselves and it is my belief that this is what his responsibility was vis-a-vis the master plan.

So to me, it is very interesting to see Mr. Vallas being put up front to defend the plan. Where is Paul Pastorek? Where is Constance Caruso?

I hadn't planned on refreshing myself on Vallas' record in Philly as it pertained to the master plan because my understanding had long been that Vallas had very little to do with the SFMPOP.


Here is this post's musical accompaniment.


Expect news of a contract extension for Paul Vallas to percolate soon.

1 comment:

Leigh C. said...

"My understanding throughout this entire process was that Mr. Vallas was not particularly involved in the master plan. Rather, the sense I've always gotten was that this was the other Paul's brainchild."

I never really got that impression, for some reason. Especially when Vallas pulled the CBDG grant funding from Blakely and the city out of his hat to explain how a wilderness school in English Turn could be funded.

Vallas may have actually LEARNED something from his time in Philly, E. Or, he may think he has and is still scrambling to get the money using only his smooth talk and ideas.

Heh, my word verification for this comment is "pyros"