By Chris Palmer
Pennsylvania's auditor general on Tuesday assailed the state Department of Education as slow to change, beset by apathy, and mired in what he called "bureaucratic ineptness."
In an 81-page report summarizing what he said was his most difficult examination of a state agency, Eugene DePasquale slammed the department for doing little or nothing to help improve 561 schools it identified as low-performing two years ago, for not updating its master education plan in 16 years, and for letting a former education secretary collect a $140,000 consulting paycheck for essentially doing no work.
"To me, it is a dereliction of duty," DePasquale said during a Capitol news conference.
Pointing at a map of the poor-performing schools he believed the state has neglected -- including 153 in and around Philadelphia -- DePasquale continued: "Our job is to give every one of these kids an equal shot. Right now, that is not happening in Pennsylvania."
The report contained 30 recommendations for improving the department, which has more than 500 employees and a $10 billion budget. The suggestions included rethinking aspects of institutional structure, establishing clearer criteria for defining poor-performing schools, and creating an office or bureau to assist those schools.
DePasquale insisted the suggestions -- coming in the midst of a state budget stalemate largely centered on education funding -- were not political.
None of his recommendations are binding, and in written responses included with the report, state education officials indicated they didn't necessarily agree with them.
Larry Wittig, chairman of the state Board of Education, said the auditor's claim of "misguided leadership" on the board "seems to be a matter of opinion rather than a finding supported by objective evidence."
In a statement, education department spokeswoman Nicole Reigelman said officials there have "reviewed the auditor general's findings" and would be taking steps to implement corrections, though she did not elaborate. DePasquale said he hoped education officials would be open to potential changes. He described the audit -- which began during the administration of former Gov. Tom Corbett -- as the most difficult his office had undertaken since he started in 2013 because of the organizations' unwillingness to cooperate.
Even Corbett's office grew frustrated with the stonewalling by department and board officials and employees, DePasquale said, although the tenor has changed in recent months.
"We have seen more cooperation since the new administration [came] in," said DePasquale who, like Gov. Wolf, is a York County Democrat.
The finding that DePasquale said troubled him most was what he called a lack of support for hundreds of low-performing schools following the 2013-2014 academic year.
While more than 800 schools that year were deemed academically challenged on their school performance profile -- a mandatory accountability system implemented by the state -- the department only provided assistance, such as turnaround plans or strategic guidance, to schools at the very bottom of the list. Those schools' metrics were so poor that the federal government mandated additional assistance, DePasquale said.
That meant 561 other schools -- including more than a quarter in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties -- received virtually no help from the very department that deemed them struggling in the first place.
"There's no sense in doing it unless there's going to be some call to action for those [schools] that are challenged," DePasquale said. "Why even bother labeling them if you're not going to do something about it?" Beyond that, DePasquale said, in 2014, the department paid Ron Tomalis, a former education secretary under Corbett, a $140,000 annual salary as an adviser, despite the fact that he produced virtually no emails or phone calls as part of the job.
"Maybe he just went to work and sat in his chair all day," DePasquale said.
Tomalis' appointment as a consultant prompted a stream of scrutiny in Corbett's final year. At the time, Tomalis repeatedly declined to discuss his job. He also could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
DePasquale also took aim at the Board of Education, which he said has not updated its master plan for basic education since 1999, a span that has included multiple presidencies and governors, each of whom has tried to change aspects of the education system.
Wittig, the board chairman, wrote in his reply that the update got lost in a sea of other board responsibilities.
DePasquale noted that fixes to each of these problems -- particularly providing additional assistance to struggling schools -- would likely be coupled with calls for additional resources.
The current Education Secretary, Pedro Rivera, repeated the call in a statement included in the report. "To help the growing number of schools that need assistance, additional funding will have to be identified to meet this need," he wrote.
And while increasing education funding is one of the Wolf administration's priorities during the prolonged budget stalemate, DePasquale said the conclusions his team reached were based solely on the results of the audit.
"Money is part of the discussion, but you've got to have a plan to deal with it," he said. "Just pushing money out to these districts won't solve it, either."
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