New Blood: Is Philly ready for a bleeding-heart conservative on Council?

In the third of an ongoing series, meet Terry Tracy: a reformer bent on shaking things up and the rarest of Philadelphia creatures – a Republican.

By Larry Platt

When last we saw 31-year-old Terry Tracy, he was getting his clock cleaned. Tracy was the human sacrifice carrying the Republican mantle in last November’s city controller race; he took eighteen percent of the vote against incumbent Alan Butkovitz.

Terry Tracy

Terry Tracy

“You lose 82-18, and it is humiliating,” says the one-time fashion brand CEO (he ran Ralph Lauren’s Canadian operations) and policy wonk with a graduate degree from the Fels Institute of Public Policy. “But as the controller’s race reached its inevitable conclusion, I realized it was only a down payment on a longer term effort to make this city all it’s capable of being.”

What got him out of his funk was…wait for it…the debacle that was the non-sale of PGW. “Forget about the merits of the deal for a minute,” says the product of Upper Darby public schools. “Think about the way it went down. As a citizen, I deserved the opportunity to develop an informed opinion about this $1.8 billion deal. I’m entitled to that. And that was taken away from me by City Council.”

His outrage was stirred by the silent unanimity on Council; the policy maven in Tracy noticed that this wasn’t just an isolated incident, that Council has a habit of taking 17-0 votes. “George Patton once said, ‘If everybody is thinking alike, someone’s not thinking,’” Tracy says. “Wherever you come down on the deal, having a hearing on PGW should not have been a 17-0 decision. And that’s the case with so many of the unanimous bills coming out of Council these past four years. There’s no real debate.”

So, right after the controller’s race, here he is, putting himself out there again (he’ll officially announce Feb. 4) because, he says, he feels a responsibility to be part of Philadelphia’s progress. “You can name twenty great things happening in Philadelphia,” he says. “And one bad thing – the state of our politics. Part of the challenge is to get all these people who are engaged civically and remaking the city in the arts, development and energy worlds to get engaged politically.” Continue reading

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Citizen of the Week: Rob and Vicki Amand

Their daughter was stricken with leukemia. So they decided to do something for all families going through what they went through

By Rosella LaFevre

When their only daughter was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003, the world seemed to stop for Rob and Vicki Amand. All they could think about was how to ensure three-and-half-year-old Reagen got well—and how they would survive the worst ordeal in a parent’s life.

RobAmand“You don’t really have a sense of emergency until something like this happens,” Rob recalls. “Then you’re thrust into trauma you didn’t know existed.”

As they headed to the hospital for chemotherapy, Vicki Amand’s boss gave them a large duffel bag that they filled with necessities: hats to cover unwashed hair, extra socks to keep warm in the cold hospital, a large soft blanket, medicine and snacks. It was their survival kit through a two and a half year chemotherapy protocol. After Reagen went into remission, the Amands threw that bag into a corner, hoping never to have to open it again. “We couldn’t throw it away,” Rob says.

But 20 months later, they needed it again. Reagen had relapsed. The Amands faced a scary truth: The more someone relapses, the higher the risk for death and secondary cancers. “We thought we were good,” Rob says. “You can do everything right and you don’t have control.”

The second time around was scarier for Reagen and her family. But they realized, too, that they were lucky: They had friends and family to support them. Not everyone in the hospital with them could say the same thing. The Amands wanted desperately to keep other kids from suffering from the horrible disease. “But we knew we weren’t big enough for that,” Rob says.

Instead, in April 2005 they founded Adopt A Pig, a nonprofit that provides sick children with art therapy and their families with care packages. Through the program, the Amands send white ceramic piggy banks to local hospitals, where they are decorated by sick children. They then sell the decorated piggy banks to “sponsors” for a $25 donation. Sponsors take the piggy bank home, where friends and family fill it with cash donations. When the piggy banks are full, sponsors count the change, and send a check to Adopt A Pig. Continue reading

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Ideas We Should Steal: Let’s Diet!

Challenged by its mayor, Oklahoma City lost a collective 1 million pounds. Philly once tried—and failed— the same thing. Here’s how, this time, we can succeed

By Rosella LaFevre

When a fitness magazine ranked Oklahoma City as one of America’s most obese places to live, it didn’t sit right with Mayor Mick Cornett. The 5-foot-9, nearly 220-pound mayor entered his physical stats into a calculator on a government health website and realized that he was, indeed, obese. So he got to work.

After dropping a pound a week for 40 weeks, Cornett went public with his mission during a speech on New Year’s Eve, 2007. As he stood in front of the elephants at the city zoo, he called for his citizens to lose a collective 1 million pounds. To that end, he set up a website, thiscityisgoingonadiet.com, with helpful information about healthy diet and exercise. It includes a counter that displays the number of members and the number of pounds lost.

And then an amazing thing happened: In January 2012, Cornett’s mission was accomplished. More than 50,000 members dropped a million pounds of excess baggage.

Could it work in Philly? Actually, Oklahoma City was not the first to have put its residents on a diet. Philadelphia’s “76 Tons of Fun” challenge was one of the earliest weight-loss efforts made by a big city.

After Men’s Fitness named Philadelphia the fattest city in America in January 1999, Mayor John Street announced that helping his city get healthy was one of his top goals. To that end, he hired his friend Gwen Foster to serve as the city’s first health and fitness “Czar.”

Street, Foster, and the then-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, Pat Croce, challenged Philadelphians to shed 76 tons in 76 days in 2001.

A splashy goal, that one.

But apparently unrealistic. Although 26,000 Philadelphians signed up to participate, and one woman even lost 81 pounds, the overall goal went unmet. By how much, we’re not certain: Street was mum on the exact details of the challenge results. Continue reading

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Is This Really What $2.6 Billion Buys?

The Philadelphia School District Budget Should Be Big Enough To Educate Our Kids. Here’s Why It Isn’t

By Larry Platt

You’d be forgiven if, just before Christmas, you thought you’d suddenly morphed into Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. That’s because the Philadelphia School District announced that, in order to maintain the same “insufficient” programs being offered this year, it would need an additional $30 million for next school year. To turn the District into one where every student would have “access to a quality education,” we’d need $309 million next year—and $913 million by 2018-19.

Wait, what? Have we all become Bill Murray? Haven’t we been here before? Each year our local officials beg Harrisburg for more money, threatening dire consequences if they’re turned away—remember the threat of a  “Doomsday Budget” a couple of years ago? Ultimately, some piecemeal, incremental agreement is reached, as it was with the recent cigarette tax. The politicians get some face-saving cover and the proverbial can gets kicked down the road for another year—another year in which nearly ten percent of our students drop out before graduating high school, another year of hardly any nurses or guidance counselors.

Meantime, the finger pointing is as repetitive as the Groundhog Day plot. Instead of talking education solutions, the gubernatorial debate consisted of back-and-forth over a verifiable fact: Whether Gov. Corbett cut $1 billion in state funding from education. He didn’t; most of Corbett’s cuts came from the expiration of federal stimulus money. His cuts actually amounted to about $300 million. That’s a deep cut, yes, but is it so Draconian that it is the dividing line between succeeding and failing schools? Were our schools so kick-ass when they had that $300 million?

In 2013, only 45 cents of every dollar allocated for District schools went to instruction—90% of which were for salaries and benefits, making personnel the biggest cost driver District-wide.

More important, instead of getting bogged down in the political who-cut-what debate, shouldn’t we back up and ask some basic questions? Like, just how do resources correlate to results in education? And, in the case of Philly, how is it that $2.6 billion is an insufficient amount to educate roughly 200,000 kids?

A look at the Philadelphia School District budget provides some answers—and, it turns out, they point to structural problems that rarely get discussed. For example, in 2013, only 45 cents of every dollar allocated for District schools went to instruction—90 percent of which were for salaries and benefits, making personnel the biggest cost driver District-wide.

So what of the other 55 cents? Well, roughly half the budget is comprised of legally-mandated expenses, such as charter school payments and special education costs. Most glaringly, owing to decades of fiscal mismanagement, in which the District continually borrowed money without the tax base to pay it back, nearly 10 percent of the budget is reserved for paying off the debt. (This is why the District’s bonds are now rated near junk status.) That’s projected to total $260 million this year. According to Watchdog.org, that’s more than the costs of transportation, utilities and food—combined. If not for the debt, the District would have the funds to hire roughly 1,000 more teachers and provide each student with an iPad.

How come nobody talks about this? At the height of the Great Recession, a whole host of banks were deemed too big to fail. How about considering the Philadelphia School District too important to fail? After all, banks restructure loans all the time. Why not restructure the debt currently choking the District—threatening bankruptcy, if need be—in exchange for real reform commitments?

“I looked into that,” School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green said when I put this notion to him. “The state couldn’t declare bankruptcy in Philadelphia because it would put all state bonds in jeopardy.”

Well, okay. Does that mean we should discuss returning the schools to local control so we can declare bankruptcy and reorganize—using Detroit’s forthcoming renaissance as a model? It’s complicated. In the Inquirer, former schools’ interim CEO Phil Goldsmith persuasively argued that electing a local school board would have dire consequences. (If you like City Council, you’re gonna love an elected school board.) But maybe you appoint one? At the very least, the idea should be part of a public discussion.

The fact is, as a recently released Pew report illustrates, our school woes are deeply complicated. In the 2013-14 school year, Philadelphia spent $12,500 per pupil, less than that of comparable cities Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit, but right about at the national average. The Pew report concedes that equal funding does not necessarily guarantee the same outcome. Camden, by virtue of court order, spends more than $25,000 per pupil—and the results there don’t differ much from ours.

“Money does not necessarily correlate with student achievement,” Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor, said a few years ago. “In this country in the last 30 years, we have more than doubled the amount of money we are spending per child, and the results have gotten worse, not better.”

Ever since Rhee allowed a documentary crew to film her actually firing one of her teachers I’ve been lukewarm on her, but the data suggests she has a point. In the latest Programme for Individual Student Assessment (PISA) report, which tests 15-year-olds worldwide, the United States ranked 36th out of 65 countries in math. Vietnam and Canada both kicked our ass—and both spent far less than us to do it.

If not for the $260 million debt, the District would have the funds to hire roughly 1,500 more teachers and provide each student with an iPad.

I’m not arguing for disinvestment—I’m simply saying that maybe smarter spending is in order. Veteran education policymaker Marc S. Tucker recently told Joe Nocera of the New York Times that countries like Finland that have far surpassed the U.S. academically aren’t “spending more money; they are spending money differently.” They’re investing in teacher training in a way we don’t, purposefully treating teaching as a profession akin to law or medicine here—thereby attracting top students into the field.

The Pew report unearths a number of inconvenient facts. Yes, Pennsylvania is shamefully one of only three states nationwide that doesn’t use a comprehensive school funding formula that would take need and demographics into account when allocating state aid to schools; but Pew also finds that, in other states, such a formula has not necessarily provided a higher level of state aid to big-city districts. Equally troubling: at a time when many of us have been howling for more state funding, the District has actually been more reliant on state aid — 46 percent of its operational revenue came from the state in 2013-14 — than most of our ten most comparable cities.

Contrary to the familiar school funding debate that has dominated Philadelphia for far too long, maybe it’s not all about the money. After all, for years now, we’ve been looking to be bailed out by Harrisburg. How’s that working out? It’s time to talk about fixing our own financial house and figure out a way to get out from under our mandated costs. Just imagine having a competently-managed District that—as exists in Finland—has the freedom to make smart investments with the money it does have. Why can’t $2.6 billion buy that kind of thinking?

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The Publics and the Catholics

Why a revolution in Catholic School education is important to the City

By Jeremy Nowak

Nowak

Nowak

Growing up in a Philadelphia row home neighborhood in the 1950’s and 1960’s, my understanding of schools was based on a simple division between publics and Catholics. From my experience at the time, the publics were largely Jewish and African American. The Catholics were largely Irish and Italian.

The parallel Catholic system in Philadelphia rivaled the public district. At its height, Catholic schools educated more than one third of the city’s school age children. Today that number is less than 10 percent.

Back then, Catholic schools provided a quiet subsidy to the city by educating children who otherwise would have been in the public system, while many Catholic school homeowners paid real estate taxes for a public amenity they chose not to use.

Over the past half-century, Catholic schools in Philadelphia have declined due to changing regional demographics, a dramatic drop in the number of women who become nuns (a traditional pillar of Catholic education), the need to increase tuition, and the increased integration of Catholics into non-Catholic institutions.

The sexual molestation scandals also damaged the Catholic brand (and its finances), although the view of Catholic schools was not affected as significantly as the overall view of the church itself.

The decline of Philadelphia Catholic schools is part of a national trend: In 1960, there were about 13,000 Catholic schools in the United States. The number today is around 7,500. As with other institutions created, in part, as a reaction to discrimination, the decline of anti-Catholic sentiment has also changed the role of the schools and parish system that supported them.

But the decline of Catholic schools in Philadelphia may be coming to an end, or at least slowing down. Interesting changes are afoot. A movement that was so important to building the 19th and early 20th Century city, could make a big contribution once again.

Archdiocesan schools, like the School District of Philadelphia, have traditionally functioned as a monopoly. While some schools linked to Catholic orders (e.g. Jesuits or Christian Brothers) had significant autonomy from the Archdiocese, in general it was a top down system with the hub on the Parkway and the spokes at the parishes.

Monopolies are based, in part, on regulatory advantages that make it difficult for alternatives to emerge or compete. While there are economies of scale in large systems, monopolies can stymie innovation. Moreover they often have trouble responding to external changes, even when a response is in their self-interest.

The Philadelphia School District has had difficulty responding to two waves of competition over the past several decades: affordable suburban housing alternatives and the charter school movement. Both have chipped away at enrollment and changed the political calculus between Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

Nonprofits Faith in the Future and Independence Mission have taken over 32 Catholic schools in Philadelphia. Experiments such as these are happening around the country, but none at this scale.

The Archdiocese had neither the financial capacity nor the incentives to respond to the decline of its Philadelphia schools. As a regional body it followed Catholic demography, resulting in new Catholic schools in the high growth suburbs and closed schools in the city and inner ring suburbs.

Financially and politically, it was hard for the Archdiocese to see another way out. There were new announcements every few years about Catholic school closings.

But this began to change in the wake of the Archdiocese Blue Ribbon Commission report in 2012. Catholic civic and business leaders, alumni and philanthropists, had enough. It was one thing to more rationally manage decline, but they wanted stronger management, more autonomy, and targeted efforts at growth.

Since that time, Philadelphia has been at the center of an enormous experiment to re-think Catholic school management. And while it is much too early to know if it will succeed, there are some encouraging signs. Continue reading

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New Blood: A Former Janitor Turned Policy Wonk Talks Solutions

A desperately needed new generation is stepping up to change Philly by changing City Council. In the second of an ongoing series, meet at-large candidate George Matysik

By Larry Platt

Talk to most candidates for public office, and you get hard-bitten political speak. You get tactics, you get horserace analysis, you get practiced talking points. Talk to 33-year-old Council at-large candidate George Matysik and you get the feeling you’ve walked out of the political realm and into an urban studies class. The ideas come, fast and furious.

George Matysik

George Matysik

A self-described “policy guy,” Matysik was, until recently, the unassuming director of public policy and government relations for Philabundance, the groundbreaking hunger relief organization. For some time, however, he’s been known in political circles as a savvy behind-the-scenes guy. A former campaign manager for then-Delaware County Congressman Joe Sestak, Matysik ran his friend Jared Solomon’s near-miss insurgent primary campaign for the state house last May against veteran legislator Mark Cohen, he (shamefully) of the record-breaking expense account and per diem reimbursements. (Matysik and Solomon grew up near each other in the Northeast. “We can smell the crab fries off each other,” Matysik jokes.)

City Council has seldom been confused with high-mindedness. Thirty-five years ago, when our then-mayor was calling it “the worst legislative body in the free world,” two Council members came to blows on the chamber’s floor, wrestling like schoolchildren. One of those men went on to become mayor—John Street. It was then, as it is now, a place for bare-knuckled petty politics (see: the aborted Gas Works sale) and an insular, transactional culture. Statesmen have been in short supply—as have innovative ideas.

Now here comes this policy nerd, a candidate who has already released one in-depth policy white paper on education, and who promises to inundate us with many more. Talk to him and he seems more grad assistant than Philly pol. But maybe that’s been part of our problem.

“I’m not the most outgoing person in the world,” Matysik says when asked about this first turn of his as front man. “I’m a shy extrovert. I’m not the guy who is going to walk up to strangers and tell them all about myself. But when you look at this city, I just figured the stakes were too high. Campaigns usually have the same old stale talking points. Someone has to step up and talk about real ideas. I’ll let the experts tell me why I’m going to lose while I run the race I think the city needs.”

His story is certainly compelling. Matysik is a product of Castor Gardens in the lower Northeast, which has seen a 62 percent spike in poverty over the last decade—fueling his urgency. After high school, he got a full-time job as a janitor at the University of Pennsylvania, eventually parlaying that position into an opportunity: He’d wake at 5 a.m. to clean the school’s administrative offices and, upon clocking out at 3 p.m., he’d become a full-time urban studies student. Sestak, Philabundance and heading an aggressive three-year fundraising campaign for the Mifflin School in his East Falls neighborhood followed, before his decision to seek a Council seat.

“Mifflin is 85 percent economically disadvantaged, and we raised close to $100,000 for it,” he says.  Inspired by that success, Matysik wonders if the work he and others have done for a handful of neighborhood schools could be a city-wide model. (Fellow at-large candidate Tom Wyatt similarly cut his teeth as an activist and advocate for a neighborhood school.) He asks why we don’t have a School District Board of Directors to raise money for our schools. “The Free Library has a Foundation that raises money and advocates for it,” he says. “The same could be done for our schools.” Continue reading

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Citizen of the Week: Emaleigh Doley

For Emaleigh Doley, W. Rockland Street isn’t just home. It’s an urban betterment lab.

By Rosella LaFevre

Emaleigh and Aine Doley grew up on West Rockland Street, a one-block street in Germantown where they still live together in their childhood home, surrounded by 46 other houses that are owned, rented and subsidized. The block has seen better days: After 2009, it has been plagued by litter, broken sidewalks, abandoned houses and trash-strewn vacant lots.

Sisters Aine (left) and Emaleigh Doley (right)

Sisters Aine (left) and Emaleigh Doley (right)

The Doleys didn’t want to live like that. So they decided to do something about it.  With self-described “do-it-yourself spirit and low-cost high-impact approach,” the Doley sisters organized their neighbors, and have started to rebuild their small block into the haven they remembered from their youth.

Emaleigh is an independent communications consultant, and a producer with annual TEDxPhiladelphia conference. She has worked at DesignPhiladelphia and Next City, and serves on the boards of City Planning Commission’s Citizens Planning Institute and Design Advocacy Group. So she understands, perhaps more than most, who to call and how to get things done in the city. But to the Doleys, bettering a neigborhood doesn’t require special skills—just desire. “Anyone can be an active citizen or neighborhood advocate,” Emaleigh says.

Knowing where to start was the hardest part. At first, they stuck to small things: Meeting with neighbors to get ideas, picking up trash, doing small planters. Soon, they became more ambitious.

In June 2011, they garnered press from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which ran a story about their efforts on Rockland St. The story caught the attention of Mayor Nutter, who stopped by their block one morning to speak with them and see what could be done. Within two weeks, the two houses that sat vacant for 20 years were demolished. Mayor Nutter told the Inquirer, “When neighbors are trying to make something happen, we, the city, have to meet them halfway.”

The two houses and a vacant lot that sat adjacent have since become a fenced-in green space where community members gather. Emaleigh said they’re in the early stages of a Mural Arts collaboration to further beautify the space.

A year later, the Doleys and their neighbors transformed another vacant lot into a community garden, with a colorful, inviting entrance, 13 raised planting beds, a melon and climbing vine patch, a compost bin, a floral garden and jungle gym for kids. The vacant lot remains city owned, but the neighbors took responsibility for transforming the eyesore. That year, The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society awarded the garden 2nd Place in the Community Garden Combination category of the annual City Gardens Contest. In the same City Gardens Contest, W. Rockland St. was awarded 3rd Place in the Greenest Block in Town. Approximately 30 houses have front yard gardens and large sidewalk planters, the increase in which Doley attributes to the block’s participation in the annual Grow This Block! now in its fourth year. Continue reading

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Ideas We Should Steal: Zero-Based Budgeting

Josh Shapiro has reimagined how suburban public dollars are spent —and reinvented government in the process. Yo, mayoral candidates: Anyone listening?

By Larry Platt

When he was elected in 2011, Montgomery County Commission Chairman Josh Shapiro inherited a mess. He faced a $10 million budget hole and a structural deficit of $49 million—percentage-wise, more of a shortfall than Governor-elect Tom Wolf faces right now.

So what did he do? He started over. Literally.

Josh Shapiro

Josh Shapiro

As a young Capitol Hill staffer in the 1990s, the now 41-year-old Shapiro had once heard Bill Clinton talk about the novel notion of “zero-based budgeting.” He never forgot it, despite the fact that, to his knowledge, it’s not being practiced by any major government anywhere. Shapiro hired numbers whiz Uri Monson, the former head of the state board that oversees Philly’s fiscal matters, to be his chief financial officer. Soon after taking office, they unveiled their new  approach to all county department heads: Instead of submitting their usual request for a percentage raise in their budgets, each had to write a paragraph detailing their core mission. Then Shapiro and Monson worked backwards with them from there, essentially starting at zero and figuring out how much it would take to meet the mission.

There were skeptics. When one inherited staffer objected by saying, “This isn’t how we do it,” Shapiro abruptly ended the meeting. “People either became converts or no longer worked here,” he says.

“Philly is the ideal place for zero-based budgeting,” says Shapiro. But it would require taking on some politically sacred cows.

Within a year, the shortfall was transformed into a balanced budget with no new taxes, one that increased pension funding, grew the county’s reserves for the first time in four years, and eliminated all earmarks. Last year, the county finished with a $1.6 million surplus; overall spending was down 10 percent compared to 2011, but investment in human services, education and public safety were all up without any corresponding uptick in debt.

“I believe zero-based budgeting is the most important thing governments can do,” Shapiro says. “From Harrisburg to D.C., the debate is always about taxes and spending, when what we should be doing is starting our budgets at zero, defining our core mission, and then funding it.” Continue reading

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Schooling Millennials

Will opening a new charter school in—and for—Center City keep millennials from splitting for the suburbs?

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Benjamin Persofsky’s is an age-old Philadelphia tale. He and his wife moved to Center City as a young couple, where they had a vibrant group of friends. Years passed, and those friends got married; they had kids; they began to agonize over city schools. Then, one by one, Persofsky’s friends left the city for the suburbs. For Persofsky, who still lives in Center City with his wife and now a new baby, the exodus signalled more than a loss of his own community. He saw it as a loss for the city as a whole: As his friends left Philadelphia, so did their real estate taxes, wage taxes and discretionary spending, all funds that the city needs to become more livable. Like so many before him, Persofsky wondered: How can we convince people to stay?

His answer: Build a school they’ll want their children to attend.

Benjamin Persofsky

Benjamin Persofsky

This fall, Persofsky formed the Partnership School for Science and Innovation (PSSI), which applied to open a new branch of the acclaimed MaST Community Charter School in Center City. PSSI’s application was among the 40 submitted to the School Reform Commission in November. But it has one thing the other charters don’t: A catchment area that would draw students primarily from Center City, an area with the wealthiest Philadelphians and the city’s most lauded public elementary schools.

“We’re trying to help the School District solve a problem that also can help the city of Philadelphia,” Persofsky says. “We have all this churn in the higher-end brackets, over this one issue. That has a huge impact on the city. We need to give people more options so they don’t have to move.”

Whether the SRC will affirm Persofsky’s reasoning—and the school’s proposal—is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, PSSI has drawn the ire of critics—already disinclined to favor charters—who see the proposal as elitist, providing more great seats to the haves, while much of the District languishes behind. “I feel like they’re just looking out for themselves and their children,” says Lauren Summers, a schools advocate (and public school mom) who runs Philly School News, a Facebook group with over 600 followers. “This doesn’t really help the students who need better schools, which is what charter schools are supposedly about.”

Persofsky is not an educator. He’s a Philly native who says he grew up poor in the Northeast, where he (unhappily) attended Northeast High School, before eventually becoming a banker. Now, he is a senior vice president at Brown Brothers Harriman, a privately-owned bank; his wife, Danielle Sandsmark, is a neurologist at Penn. Besides Persofsky, PSSI’s board is made up of other doctors and Penn professors, accountants, bankers and a couple of education administrators, about half of whom have small children. They chose MaST as their partner based on the state’s performance scores, on which the tech-focused Northeast school ranked highest among K-12 schools in the city. (MaST has also applied to open another branch in the Northeast.)

Persofsky loves data, and he has culled studies on the city’s population and behaviors to bolster his thesis about the need for a new school in Center City. According to a 2014 Pew study, the population of millennials in Philadelphia grew by about 100,000 from 2006 to 2012, the highest jump of any city in the country. The biggest concentration of Philly’s young people is in Center City, where the new Comcast Innovation Center is expected to bring 2,000 new jobs. Persofsky notes that the city has one chance to convince those families to move to Philly, rather than the suburbs. But it will be a tough sell: Even among millennials who already live here, half those surveyed said they expect to leave the city in 5 to 10 years, nearly 30 percent because of “schools and child-upbringing concerns.” In an ideal world, those young people will change their minds. If they do, the city faces a different crisis. Persofsky notes that in 2011, 453 babies were born to families in PSSI’s catchment area. Those kids would start kindergarten in 2016. But Persofsky says Greenfield, McCall, and even the slightly more far-flung Meredith, would have room for only about 200 of those students, combined. Continue reading

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New Blood: From The Trailer Park to the Boardroom…to City Council?

A desperately needed new generation is stepping up to change Philly by changing City Council. In the first of an ongoing series, meet at-large candidate Tom Wyatt.

By Larry Platt

After announcing his at-large Council candidacy last Saturday, Tom Wyatt, a lawyer at Dilworth Paxson, admitted he was embarking on a daunting task. “It is scary,” he said. “But not as scary as working minimum wage and not being able to feed your family.”

tom_headshot

Tom Wyatt

He knows whereof he speaks. Wyatt’s story is a compelling one and he tells it thoughtfully and dramatically. His CV doesn’t begin with some outsized accomplishment. Instead, it begins with a desultory high school career—“I was sleepwalking and nearly flunked out,” he says—and it includes a stint flipping Whoppers at Burger King and living in a trailer park outside Bloomsburg, PA. Then came two years teaching the poorest children in the nation in the Mississippi Delta and counseling inmates at a halfway house, coaxing them toward reentry into society. “It wasn’t lost on me that some of those who had made bad decisions could have been me,” he says.

Wyatt went to college and, ultimately, law school because of public programs. “I’m a beneficiary,” he says. “Of public schools, the free lunch program, Pell Grants. And a whole lot of luck, not to mention the generosity of others.”

He spent a decade in the executive suite at Voorhees, NJ-based American Water Works, a large public utility, before joining Dilworth last fall—largely because of the law firm’s storied history of civic engagement. (Dilworth CEO Ajay Raju is chairman and chief benefactor of The Citizen). “American Water is a fabulous company, “ he says. “But I wanted to be part of a culture steeped in the history of corporate citizenship here. Dilworth is the heart and soul of Philadelphia.”

For the last two years, Wyatt has led the community group that has helped invigorate his neighborhood school, East Passyunk’s Andrew Jackson Elementary. They’ve built a green garden roof and renovated a playground—baby steps towards a goal of raising test scores and high school admissions. “We have miles to go before we sleep,” says Wyatt. Meanwhile, his activism on behalf of one school woke him up to the possibility of doing more, citywide.

“Everybody sits back and thinks there’s no way to put your hand on the lever and make a difference in a city this large,” he says. “I’m ashamed to say I felt that way. Then my daughter was born and I said, ‘Holy smokes, every parent feels this way about their kid.’ So there are hundreds of thousands of us in this soup together. My wife and I just dug in.”

If elected, Wyatt will voluntarily limit himself to two terms. “I’m not a career politician. I want to pave the way for future leaders,” he says.

Which gets us to Wyatt’s elevator pitch. “Look at my skill set,” he says. “Experience getting things done on the ground in the neighborhood, in the classroom, and as an executive. There’s a clear opportunity here for Council and the Mayor to better collaborate. We need problem solvers.”

Like so many of us, he was disheartened to see the tragic dance that was the aborted selling of PGW: “I don’t even know who was right and who was wrong,” he says. “I was disappointed as a citizen that we couldn’t even have public hearings about what to do with this cherished public asset.” Continue reading

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