Uri Monson views his move to another troubled municipal setting as another opportunity to test his Jewish background.
There’s a framed copy of the speech Uri Monson calls “one of the most incredible ever written” in the Norristown office he’ll soon be vacating as chief financial officer of Montgomery County. Presumably, though, when he moves to his new address Feb. 12 at the School District of Philadelphia, his copy of the Gettysburg Address will come along.
“I am a Lincoln fan,” said Monson, who’s taking this plunge after resurrecting the county’s budget in just four years, turning a $27 million deficit into a surplus. “I grew up less than a mile from Independence Hall. I’m a government history buff. If you like American government, you’ve got to be a Lincoln fan and remember what he did.
“And the most famous line in the Gettysburg Address is the first time anyone ever said ‘government of the people… by the people… for the people.’ ”
Those are words Uri Monson lives by. His stance may not always be popular — and it has occasionally ruffled some feathers. But it gets results.
“My nickname is ‘CF No,’ ” laughed this son of a New York rabbi. “Our communications director dubbed me that my first year because it’s my job to say ‘No’ to things — she decided I was quite good at it. I take it as a compliment. It’s not fun to say ‘No,’ but someone’s got to do it. I believe it’s a responsibility to see public money is spent wisely and that you’re honest and transparent with the public about how the money is being spent.”
But now comes the toughest challenge of all. The district’s finances have been a mess for years. Some estimates see its current debt surpassing $1 billion, in large part due to the ongoing budget impasse within the state that is threatening to close some schools and forcing drastic cuts elsewhere.
According to Monson, his biggest concern is not knowing just what he’s up against. “I’m trying to get some sense of the depth of the challenge — and it is a challenge,’’ said the 46-year-old Monson, who lives with wife, Rebekah, and three children in Lower Merion. “But I happen to like puzzles and I’m good at them.
“At its fundamental core, the biggest challenge they have is they have no control over their own revenues. And there are so many mandated issues — pensions, payments, high capital debt, charter school costs — that their ability to control expenditures is also limited.
“But you never really know until you’re on the inside. I have a steep learning curve ahead of me, and hopefully the tools I’ve used and experiences I’ve had will help.”
They did in Montco, where Monson came into a situation he immediately realized needed a complete overhaul. “We made some difficult decisions,” said Monson, making it a point to credit his entire team, the rest of which will remain behind when he joins the leadership team at the district’s headquarters on North Broad Street, headed by Superintendent William R. Hite and COO Fran Burns. “We had to do an honest appraisal of what was going on.
“The year before I came in, they had a 10-page budget. This is not what I would call a meaningful or transparent document. What you can see is they would say they were going to spend a certain amount — and then spend more than that. It wasn’t honest.”
Gradually, Monson and his team went about changing that, to the point that the current budget — complete with a five-year plan — is 61 pages long and can be viewed online at montcopa.org. He views his move to yet another troubled municipal setting as simply another opportunity to put his Jewish background to the test.
“I think the public service component and commitment to education certainly is part of that,” agreed Monson, who majored in political science at the same time he was studying Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary on the way to his master’s in public policy from Columbia. “And there’s family, community and Jewish values about believing we have the responsibility to make it better for our children — not to put our burden on them. My kids shouldn’t have to pay for my refusal to deal with an issue now; if I have an obligation, I should finish it.”
Those were lessons he learned, values he acquired growing up in a family rich with rabbinic and Judaic scholars. His father, Rabbi Michael Monson, started off in New York, before coming here to be the rabbi at Penn Hillel. His mother, Rela, was a former president at Baltimore Hebrew University and later a professor at Gratz College. And both his grandfather and great-grandfathers were rabbis, too. Even his younger brother, Ami, is in rabbinical school while also serving as youth director at Valley Beth Shalom congregation in Encino, Calif.
But the rabbinate wasn’t for Uri, whose name comes from a poem by Rachel Bluwstein about a barren woman longing for a son she would give that name. The poem inspired his parents. In turn, Uri and Rebekah have given their children — Shoshana, Ariel and Eitan — Hebrew names as well.
“It wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life,” he acknowledged of the decision not to follow in the family tradition. “I respect the title and all the knowledge, but it wasn’t my calling. I like doing public service and I like government.”
Having worked for the city in the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, followed by the county, working for the school district figures to offer its own unique set of challenges. Once he learns what they entail, Monson will be ready to take them on.
“I don’t know enough yet about the school district to know what needs to be done,” said Monson, who attended Solomon Schechter and Akiba, and spent his summers at Camp Ramah. “They have a plan, an agenda of how they want to move the whole system forward. My goal is to get in and figure out how to help with the finances. Fundamentally — and this is true with the job I have now and every job I’ve had — at the core it’s not about the numbers. It’s about what the numbers allow you do.
“I am part of a team here that has done great things and I want to be part of a team there that does great things. What matters is the program, not the money. They need the money to do the program; I try to marry the two.”
So bring it on, Philadelphia School District. The “CF No” awaits.
Contact: [email protected] 215-832-0729