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Published in Print: August 8, 2001, as Edison To Study Woes Of Philadelphia Schools

Edison To Study Woes Of Philadelphia Schools

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Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania took the first step toward a possible takeover of the Philadelphia schools last week by naming Edison Schools Inc., the nation's largest for-profit operator of public schools, to review the 210,000-student system.

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street and Gov. Ridge have 90 days to agree on how to fix the city schools' fiscal and educational woes, or the state will take over the system.

Some see the $2.7 million contract with Edison as the first step toward turning over some schools, if not the management of the entire system, to the company, which now runs 136 schools with 75,000 students in 22 states.

Mr. Ridge said the two-month, Edison-led analysis of the district "is not designed to point fingers, but to suggest fresh ideas and innovative perspectives for the district ... that will be fully grounded in the tough, day-to-day realities of managing and improving a struggling urban school district."

The governor will use the review to craft his own school reform plan for Philadelphia, which is due by Sept. 29. If the Republican governor and the Democratic mayor don't reach an accord on the schools by Oct. 29, the state will take over the district—making it the largest school system in the nation to be state-run.

Gov. Ridge and Mayor Street agreed to the deadline in a memorandum of understanding signed last week to help the district pay its bills, including the July 31 payroll.

As part of the deal, the city and the state agreed to file a joint motion to seek a three-month postponement in a federal lawsuit the city has filed against the state, alleging that Pennsylvania's school aid formula discriminates against minority children.

Facing a $216 million deficit in its $1.7 billion budget for the current fiscal year, the district has already put off some vendor payments this summer in order to pay employees. The district also projects a $1.5 billion deficit over the next five years.

Urban Expertise

The memorandum guarantees that the state will advance Philadelphia enough of its state aid to open its school doors next month and run at least through the end of October.

"We must have a solution, and it must involve more money," said Debra Kahn, the mayor's education secretary. "If we can't get that, our position is that the state ought to manage the district."

Edison, which is based in New York City, planned to have a review team up and running at the beginning of this week.

Christopher Whittle, Edison's chief executive officer, will directly oversee the review process and will work out of Philadelphia at least part of each week, a spokesman for the company said.

Edison's leadership team in Philadelphia includes Deborah McGriff, a former Detroit schools chief, and Ramon C. Cortines, who has led the school districts in New York City and Los Angeles.

The company also will bring in outside consultants as well as several local education experts, said Eugene V. Wade Jr., Edison's executive vice president for development.

Private consultants already named to the project to help study financial and management areas are Merrill Lynch and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Most of Edison's schools are in urban areas, including Dallas and San Francisco. It also runs the 1,500-student Inkster, Mich., school district. In Pennsylvania, it will manage most of the schools, beginning this fall, in the 7,500-student Chester-Upland district, which is overseen by a state-appointed panel.

"I'm not sure what we will find that's new, but we must come up with an action plan," Mr. Wade said about the company's charge in Philadelphia. "It has to be about what can be done, and not something that is abstract."

So far, the city's powerful teachers' union has struck a conciliatory tone about Gov. Ridge's announcement last week.

"Although we are not part of the process that led to the approach outlined in the memorandum ... the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is willing to work with the governor's evaluation team," Ted Kirsch, the union's president, said in a written statement.

'On the Table'

While Gov. Ridge will have to decide what to do with the recommendations, speculation is rampant that Edison will be part of his long-term vision for Philadelphia.

"Everything is on the table. Our job is to provide the governor with executable options," Mr. Wade said. "We may end up being part of the solution, but it's not clear at this time."

Pedro Ramos, the school board president, has heard the same speculation. "It's a natural question to ask, but we haven't discussed that," he said. "Our focus has been on the review process."

Regardless of the outcome, Mr. Ramos added, "there are a lot of people here involved in public education and who care about improving schools, and we are not going anywhere."

While the legislature has resisted the city's requests for more school aid, Mr. Ridge, who completes his second and last term as governor next year, could call for more state funding for Philadelphia.

"Yes, there could be more money, if it's tied to enhanced educational results," Tim Reeves, the governor's spokesman, said. "The governor is pursuing solutions that reflect reality."

John M. Perzel, the majority leader of the state House of Representatives, said some legislators would cringe at the thought of a state takeover of the city's schools. "Yes, some are hesitant," said Mr. Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican. "I think it would be better. We have an obligation to those children."

Meanwhile, Emily Pagan, who will be a senior at Thomas A. Edison High School, asked for something from the process that no one else interviewed mentioned.

"The student voice must be respected," she said. "They should talk to us. They would get a different perspective."

Vol. 20, Issue 43, Page 3

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