How do you solve a problem like the school district's?
That question has been asked for years, but yesterday the answer was "money": The district had come to City Council to ask the city for help in filling a $629 million shortfall in next year's budget.
It took district leaders four hours, and a closed- door session that included Mayor Nutter, to say how much help they hoped for.
We understand why they might have wanted to remain coy about this figure, because Superintendent Arlene Ackerman finally disclosed that the district was hoping that the city provide it with a staggering amount: $75 million to $110 million - on top of the $825 million the city provides to the district already. This figure was echoed later by the mayor, who says he is committed to finding that money. How, where and when are details he left for another day.
Of the district's $2.8 billion budget, the state provides about 45 percent, the city 30 percent, and the rest comes from the feds and other grants. The state is proposing cuts of nearly $300 million. To accommodate that, the district proposes eliminating all-day kindergarten, reducing the number of students it transports, increasing class size, and other changes that could do real damage to the academic progress the district has made recently.
Obviously, the big question is where the city will come up with $75 million to $110 million for the schools? Since the city budget doesn't exactly have a surplus, the options are limited: a property tax or other tax hike; a shift in the proportion of property taxes that goes to the city vs. the district; a shift in spending from another city department to the schools, or that old standby . . . magic. We think that last option is worth trying, though it hasn't ever succeeded.
Even if the money could magically appear, there are other big questions, only some of which City Council addressed yesterday.
The state's Act 46 stipulates that the city can't make a one-time addition to the school budget, so whatever help the city gives the district this year means that the city must keep giving at that level. It's unclear whether this is negotiable.
How much control or authority can the city have over how the district spends the money it antes up? The School Reform Commission is the state-created board that oversees the district; the mayor has two appointments and the governor has three. Is this the right configuration? Is the SRC still relevant? After all, its oversight didn't prevent a $629 million deficit. Some have suggested that the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, (PICA) which oversees the city budget, may play a similar role with the school budget, but we find it hard to believe that the state would share control, even though it shows little interest in funding or overseeing the schools.
That leads to a big question: What's the state's end game? The state's drastic cut and Gov. Corbett's disinclination to fill one of his SRC appointments suggest a dangerous indifference to managing the schools. But who has the muscle to either make it pay attention or give up authority?
If the city steps in and increases its school funding, it should have more say over how the schools spend that money - especially if the city's contribution is on par with the state's. Can the state and the city be partners in overseeing the schools?
That could be a great outcome, but that, too, is probably going to require magic.