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City Controller Faults Secrecy Amid School District’s Financial Mess

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City Controller Alan Butkovitz (L) is questioned by Councilman David Oh (R) during a budget hearing. (credit: City of Philadelphia)

City Controller Alan Butkovitz (L) is questioned by Councilman David Oh (R) during a budget hearing. (credit: City of Philadelphia)

Mike Dunn Mike Dunn
Mike Dunn is City Hall bureau chief for KYW Newsradio 1060. He covers...
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By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia’s Controller says a culture of secrecy pervades the School District, making it difficult for anyone to get to the root of the district’s massive deficits.

At a city council budget hearing on Tuesday, Controller Alan Butkovitz was questioned by Councilman David Oh, who voiced frustration that council is rarely given a true sense of the school district’s financial books.

“We try to get information from the school district about their finances, what’s working, what’s not working,” Oh said. “And we can never get that information. And we end up in a crunch situation, having to try to get money, squeezing blood from a stone out of the citizens of this city. And there’s a real issue about whether we’re putting good money after bad.”

Butkovitz agreed and said the secrecy goes back decades.

“There’s a long-standing cultural habit in the school district to hide information and to mask information,” he said. “And I don’t understand it, because sometimes they do it even when it hurts them to do it.”

Butkovitz blamed that lack of information not on school district leadership, but on mid-level financial bureaucrats.

“(District leaders) have indicated an openness,” Butkovitz said. “But they’re dealing with a huge bureaucracy that has been that way for decades. And I think even they have trouble riding that bureaucracy.”

According to the Controller, no school district leader has overcome that hurdle.

“So there’s always a change of bosses at the top, and then there’s a long-standing continuation of people who are in the middle,” he said. “And there’s an issue about whether people at the top can impose their discipline on the people who believe that they’ve owned the school system for generations.”

Butkovitz said since the state took control of the District in 2002, he is unable to perform performance and management audits on the district.

“So they become virtually impenetrable,” he said. “I don’t understand what the argument is for making it impenetrable.”

District officials say they will need an additional $300 million this year in city and state allocations to fully fund schools in the fall. It remains unclear how much the city will contribute, and from where those funds will come.

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