Foes Want Him Out, But Superintendent Defends Policies

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Philadelphia--In January 1980, Michael P. Marcase, superintendent of Philadelphia's public schools, told members of the city's board of education in his annual report that they had every reason to be proud of their administration of the school system.

Philadelphia's schools, unlike those in other large urban school districts, were not beset by strikes or other labor problems, he said. While other systems were being devastated by fiscal crises, their schools could boast a balanced budget. Other systems were trying desperately not to cut programs; they, in contrast, were developing nationally and internationally acclaimed educational-improvement projects. And while student test scores were declining steadily across the nation, Philadelphia students continued to display steady improvement.

Today, however, less than two years after

that report was delivered, the Philadelphia school system is about $236 million in the red and just ended a 50-day strike last week. A bill currently before the state legislature would declare the school system "distressed," remove the authority of the existing school board, and place the district under control of a special three-member panel.

Mayor William J. Green, local newspapers, and several parents' groups have long blamed many of the district's troubles on Mr. Marcase and the school board members who support him, and have called repeatedly for their resignations.

"It's open season on Mike Marcase," says one member of the superintendent's staff. "We don't know how he's kept as calm as he has."

No Intention of Resigning

Despite the attacks, the 58-year-old former shop teacher who now supervises the nation's fourth-largest school system says he has no intention of stepping down before his contract expires in June 1982. At the same time, Mr. Marcase recently indicated that he will not re-apply for the position unless the board of education asks him to stay on.

One school board member says that such a request is highly unlikely. "I think it would be criminal to ask the man to go through any more,'' says board vice-president Dolores Oberholtzer. On the other hand, she wonders who would want to replace him.

"I don't know anybody who'd be beating down the doors for this job,'' Ms. Oberholtzer says. "They'd have to be a little bit short upstairs."

Mr. Marcase, however, continues to downplay the seriousness of the school system's woes. "I don't think Philadelphia's schools are in any worse shape than those in other big-city school districts," he contends.

"Here, it's more a problem of economics than politics. As the dollar continues shrinking, combined with declining public-school enrollments, people start blaming the administration for all the problems.

"'It's mismanagement, inefficient use of funds,' they say. I see evidence of these attacks across the country. The main difference here is that things have become rather personal."

Mr. Marcase says he has run the city's school system as democratically as possible and as autocratically as necessary.

"I like to get things done, and I'm not reluctant to make decisions if the system isn't working," he says. "And this school system is working, it's moving forward. We have innovative programs, some that I created myself, that are being copied all over the country." As examples, he cites Books for Tots, which distributes free books to pre-schoolers, and Homework Hotline, for parents trying to help their children with assigments in the evening.

Mr. Marcase's assessment of his tenure in office stands in sharp contrast to the views of Helen Oakes, publisher of a newsletter that monitors the school administration.

Calls for Marcase's Resignation

"Dr. Marcase should not continue as superintendent of the district and should be removed from office at once," she states flatly. "He looks at the advancement of public education in Philadelphia only in terms of his survival as superintendent. To have him continue is to stand helplessly by and watch the system continue to be damaged."

Her sentiments are shared by Artebus Sider, co-chairperson of Philadelphia's Parents' Union for Public Education. "There's no way he can avoid knowing that every civic group in Philadelphia has lost confidence in him and his administration," she says.

Mr. Marcase's superintendency has long been at the center of controversy. In 1978, the school board--acting at the behest of outgoing Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, according to the superel5lintendent's critics--gave him a $4,000 raise (boosting his annual salary to $54,000), a three-and-one-half-year contract extension, and a promise to pay all of his personal legal fees.

The move outraged several parents' groups, and Mr. Green, then a mayoral candidate, called for Mr. Marcase's ouster.

Mr. Marcase's original contract extensionwas invalidated by a local judge in July 1980, but the school board renewed the contract again; it now carries a June 1982 expiration date.

The superintendent also faced an investigation of charges that he received gifts from a school contractor and that he improperly used school employees to build a sun porch for his summer home. This past summer, however, a grand jury declined to bring an indictment against him.

Additionally, the Philadelphia school system, both supporters and critics of Mr. Marcase agree, is not enjoying the best of times. On Sept. 8, for example, the 22,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (pft) embarked on a strike that some observers predicted would be the longest in the district's history.

The teachers walked off their jobs because the system administration, struggling under the weight of an estimated $236-million budget deficit, had furloughed more than 3,000 union members and rescinded a 10-percent pay increase for those teachers who kept their positions.

Those acts violated the provisions of a contract that ended a 22-day strike the year before. Local courts ordered the teachers back to6work, and on Oct. 15 began levying a fine of $15,000 per day against the pft.

The teachers ignored the court order and indicated they were prepared to stay out all year. But last week, on the eve of a city-wide general strike called by the afl-cio in support of the teachers, a state appeals court ordered the school authorities to rehire the furloughed teachers and ordered the union to endits strike. The school board had also agreed earlier in the year to pare down the budget deficit by closing 13 schools, cutting back the 1981-82 school year by about one month, and scaling down or eliminating some of the educational programs Mr. Marcase had spoken so highly of two years earlier.

But an audit conducted by the city and the state last spring concluded that, even with those economies and a renegotiated teacher contract, the school system would still show a $65-million deficit by the end of June 1982. By law, school systems in Pennsylvania are not permitted to operate with a deficit.

Series Attacks School System

The strongest attack against the system's administration was launched Aug. 30 when The Philadelphia Inquirer published the first installment of a lengthy series detailing its year-long investigation of the city's school system. The eight-part series, entitled "The Shame of the Schools," accused Mr. Marcase and the school board of cutting back on "the most basic needs" of the city's 213,000 public-school students while leaving a bloated and inefficient district bureaucracy intact.

Among other things, the newspaper alleged that the school system:

Ranks last among the nation's 10 largest school districts in per-pupil spending for textbooks, and ninth in the same category in spending for basic classroom supplies.

Has allowed academic standards among schools to grow inconsistent.

Has a leadership that has become too weak to govern, because administrators hire and promote not on the basis of merit alone, but according to ethnic background and political expediency.

Has become dominated by a teachers' union that imposes "cumbersome work rules and dictates to management on matters of class size and school hours."

Has fallen years behind on repairs to its 412 school buildings.

Has lost the support of most Philadelphians. The series cited a finding that four out of five persons surveyed by the newspaper said they had no children in public schools as evidence that most residents have no direct stake in the fate of the school system. Three-quarters of the respondents, given the choice between cutting school programs or paying higher taxes to help the system, preferred the cuts.

'Distant and Ineffective'

"Out in the schools," where the district administration is often viewed as the enemy, The Inquirer said, Mr. Marcase "is seen by many as distant and ineffective--the leader of a self-absorbed bureaucracy rather than a system that concentrates on educating children."

Mr. Marcase counters that The Inquirer set out to do "a hatchet job'' on his administration, and rejects the notion that the newspaper intended to help correct the school district's ills by publicizing them.

"I reject everything that they had to say," he says. "I found the series boring, biased, and mostly fictional. Everyone knows that the series was politically motivated, that the paper is a strong supporter of [Mayor] Green, and that they are enemies of [former Mayor] Rizzo. They have this terrible fear of his coming back; every editorial is "Rizzo this, Rizzo that...."

"In this city you either loved Frank Rizzo or you hated him," explains Ms. Sider. And although his term as mayor of the city expired ininued on Page XX

December 1979, Mr. Rizzo continues to be a major force in the Philadelphia school system.

This curious state of affairs, observers point out, is due primarily to the convoluted organization of the school system itself.

The city's nine-member school board, whose members serve six-year terms and hire the system's superintendent, is appointed by the mayor. At present, six members of the board are Rizzo appointees; the remaining three were appointed by Mayor Green just this year.

Control of Board

Mr. Green will gain control of the board--and through it, the school superintendency--in December 1983, when the terms of three of the "old guard" appointees expire. However, his own term of office as mayor expires just one year later, in December 1984.

The situation is complicated even further by the fact that the school3district is technically independent of the city--it has its own charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania--but is not empowered to levy taxes. The board has the responsibility to run the district, but not the ultimate power of taxation; city government has that taxing power, but not the responsibility.

Significant Changes

Mr. Green and Mr. Marcase agree that significant changes need to be made in the structure of the administration of the system. According to J. William Jones, the school district's director of information services, both the mayor and the superintendent are leaning toward a proposal that would make the management of the school district a cabinet-level department in the mayor's office.

Under such a plan, as outlined in the recent audit of the school system by the city and the state, the superintendent would be appointed by the6mayor and serve at his pleasure. The board of education would be reduced to an advisory body, whose members would serve four-year terms concurrent with that of the mayor and the city council.

Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, calls such an arrangement a "non-solution" to any beleaguered school district's troubles. "It's often talked about as a panacea, but it would only politicize the schools' situation," he explains. Mr. Shannon says that he knows of no metropolitan school system that operates under such an plan.

'Distressed' District Bill

Financial and structural reorganization of the Philadelphia school system is also a major element of the "distressed" district bill recently introduced in the state House of Representatives. Under its terms, a special three-member board of control would be required within 120el5ldays of being appointed to submit an improvement plan to the state legislature. The special board would also be given authority to raise city property taxes by approximately $35 million per year to help finance the school system.

Long-Range Problems

Changing the structure of the administration will solve a number of the system's long-range problems, Mr. Marcase said, but not that of a tax base that continues to shrink. "Due to the poor condition of the economy, there is no question we are going to have to scale down the size of the system," he says.

As events this fall testify, that will be an unpopular and difficult assignment--one which many Philadelphians would rather not entrust to Michael Marcase.

"He cannot provide the schools with the leadership and plans necessary to salvage as much as possible from the very bad financial situation in which the schools find themselves and to which he has contributed," says Ms. Oakes. "The strike settlement will chart the school system's course for years to come. Sadly, there is no knowledgeable policymaker at the table serving as an advocate for students and fighting for what is in their best interest."

Vol. 01, Issue 09

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories