Wagner Renews Call for Funding Of Safe Schools Advocate for School District of Philadelphia

Among four recommendations contained in audit of state’s largest system

HARRISBURG – With violence remaining a chronic problem in Philadelphia schools, Auditor General Jack Wagner has urged the state Department of Education to fund the Safe Schools Advocate’s office, which was created to help the School District of Philadelphia address parents’ concerns over school safety.

Wagner said the position, which had an annual budget of $342,000 when it was eliminated in 2009, should be funded from the $2.1 million appropriation for the safe schools initiative, which is contained in the Department of Education’s proposed 2011-12 budget.

Wagner’s renewed call for funding of a safe schools’ advocate is contained in an audit of the School District of Philadelphia, which the Department of the Auditor General released yesterday. It is available to the public at www.auditorgen.state.pa.us. Wagner applauded district officials for promising to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with continued violence in Philadelphia schools, but said that was not enough.

“I believe a safe schools advocate is necessary to provide independent oversight to ensure the plan is instituted properly and the district reports incident data promptly and accurately to parents, law-enforcement agencies, and the Department of Education,” Wagner said.

Philadelphia school officials said they would develop a comprehensive plan in response to a Philadelphia Human Relations Commission report that found widespread racial violence and conflicts in city schools. The report found that the school district had a system-wide intergroup conflict problem, and said that school district policies failed to provide “a clear and consistent framework” for preventing and resolving these conflicts.

Wagner’s audit cited a recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts Philadelphia Research Initiative, which found that parents are deeply concerned about the violence problem in city schools. The survey results showed that only 31 percent of parents with children in district-run schools gave those schools excellent ratings on safety, and 29 percent of parents rated their children’s schools as “fair” or “poor” on safety.

For the past five years, only the School District of Philadelphia has had schools labeled as persistently dangerous, under standards set by the state. During the 2010-11 school year, 19 of the district’s schools were on the list, down from 25 in the 2009-10 school year. These schools share many characteristics, including a violent incident rate of more than 5 per 100 students, an average daily attendance rate of less than 90 percent, and more than 40 percent of students who are chronically truant.

The position of safe schools advocate was created by the General Assembly in 2000, exclusively to address violence in Philadelphia’s public schools. However, on Aug. 14, 2009, because of a state budget crisis, funding for the safe schools advocate, an independent position within the Department of Education, was eliminated and the advocate’s doors were shut.
Wagner said the safe school advocate had helped improve school safety by ensuring the district compiled accurate data on violent incidents, thus enhancing disciplinary action, and by providing a resource to parents concerned about safety problems in their children’s schools.

In September 2009, Wagner wrote a letter to then-Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak, recommending that the department provide alternative funding for the advocate’s office, but his request was rejected. Because of an often-adversarial relationship between the former advocate and the Department of Education, Wagner’s audit now urges the General Assembly to consider modifying current state law to establish the advocate’s office as an independent agency.

“We believe the important statutorily required duties of the advocate require it be free from the Department of Education’s influence,” Wagner said.

A previous special performance audit of the Department of Education, also conducted by Wagner, found that the department was ineffective in its use of the safe school advocate because it did not provide appropriate direction, vision and oversight. The department’s monitoring and administration of school safety activities was also found to be less than adequate.

Wagner’s latest audit of the School District of Philadelphia also recommends that the district protect its safety programs and operations from potential future spending cuts because the importance of the safety and security of the district’s students cannot be overemphasized.

In May 2007, the Department of the Auditor General began a new safe school initiative to assist school districts in their efforts to provide students with a safe learning environment. The safe schools assessment, conducted in concert with the standard cyclical performance audits, typically focus on emergency planning and prevention activities; school safety policies and procedures; and an on-site review of the safety measures at selected school buildings.

The review of the School District of Philadelphia found that it has 284 schools throughout the city that are, on average, 85 years old. The school district is responsible for maintaining, repairing and securing each building, however Wagner said, a number of schools have structural or other maintenance problems that may present potential safety and security vulnerabilities for students and staff.

Wagner’s audit, covering the period October 17, 2006 through May 6, 2010, also uncovered problems with a lack of state mandated training for the school district’s school police officers.

The Pennsylvania Public School Code requires that school police officers who hold certain powers, including the authority to issue summary citations and/or detain individuals until local law enforcement is notified, receive training in compliance with state law, known as “Act 120 training.” The School District of Philadelphia does not meet this standard, in fact, it only provides its police officers with 142 hours of classroom instruction, which is 420 hours less than what is provided under the Act 120 training program.

“Because the School District of Philadelphia has historically had more violent incidents than any other school district in the commonwealth, it needs a well-trained police force,” Wagner said. “I urge the school district to ensure that all of its school police officers receive proper training.”

Wagner’s audit also found that the district could not verify student membership and attendance data, putting into question whether the district received the correct level of state funding. This problem was noted in previous audits and never corrected. Wagner recommended that the district implement and maintain a system of internal controls to ensure data accuracy, and improve recordkeeping at the school level. He also called on Department of Education intervention.

“The Department of Education needs to determine what’s wrong and what changes need to be made so that, going forward, there is accurate and reliable reporting of daily membership in Philadelphia schools,” Wagner said.

Wagner’s audit also found that, although the district has divested itself from nearly all of its interest-rate “swap” agreements, as Wagner’s auditors had previously recommended, the district refused to renounce the future use of swaps.

“Swaps may be acceptable in the private sector, where businesses are free to decide how much risk they can tolerate, but they should have no role in government, where it is the taxpayers’ money that is at stake,” Wagner said. “Public debt should be financed with fixed-interest rates that are transparent, reliable, and easily understood by decision-makers and the public.”

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