In Philadelphia's struggling schools, $3.8 million could cover the salaries of 59 new school librarians. It could buy a year of new textbooks for 45,500 students, or dramatically reduce class sizes for nearly 4,000 kids.
Instead, the district spends that much each year on 78 clerical jobs at the Board of Revision of Taxes, all reserved for loyal political workers and their families.
"It's just this drain on the school district," said Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, an advocacy group.
"There's this constant, slow, steady drip, when you're cutting down to the bare bones."
Under a decades-old arrangement, more than a third of the BRT's workers are paid by the school district, not the city. That allows them to avoid the ban on political activity that applies to city workers.
The setup has proved impervious to attacks by reformers, who've been complaining about BRT patronage since Philadelphia was run by Republicans.
The district's last two leaders, scrounging for money to save things like bands and bus passes, tried to trim these positions but quickly ran into the realities of power and politics in Philadelphia.
In March 2007, then-schools chief Paul Vallas announced that it was time for the city "to simply pay your bills."
"Get them off our payroll or pay for them," Vallas said he argued. "This was always about patronage."
That was a direct challenge to party leaders.
"You guess who won that fight," said David B. Glancey, the BRT's former chairman and an ex-Democratic city leader.
To Glancey, Vallas was no reformer. The schools chief just wanted to control the jobs for his own political ends, Glancey said.
Vallas, now superintendent of schools in New Orleans, said that was "so patently absurd that it would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic that money was being taken from schoolchildren."
Tom Brady, Vallas' successor, said he tried to cut the workers, too, despite warnings from his senior staff that it would never fly at the School Reform Commission, the state-controlled board that oversees city schools.
They were right, Brady said.
"It was not a battle worth fighting at the risk of losing the war," said Brady, now superintendent in Providence, R.I.
Defending the patronage workers was Martin Bednarek, a former Democratic ward leader in the Northeast who served on the school board from 2003 until last month.
A real estate appraiser by training, Bednarek also has consulting contracts with the BRT, tied in part to the patronage workers. Since 1998, he's been paid $163,000 to train them to become property assessors.
"If anyone asked me my opinion, I said we were getting our money's worth," Bednarek said. "I don't see anything inappropriate with it, if folks are doing their job and doing a day's work.
"Somebody has to pay them."
The current schools chief, Arlene Ackerman, declined to comment. In a statement, the school board said: "We must remember that our common goal is to ensure that we are maximizing the amount of available funds for public education."
School advocates, though, say it's outrageous for the district to support the BRT workers while cutting services for children.
Last year, Parents United sent a letter asking the BRT to remove its employees from the school budget.
"We all know the consequences of living with an underfunded school system," the letter said, noting that the district has the largest classes in the state.
At Bridesburg Elementary, for example, first-grade classes have about 37 students each. Suburban schools, by contrast, try to limit first-grade classes to 22 or 23.
"It's easy to say the children come first, but it's not the children coming first; it's the budget that drives every decision," said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
"In this district, there's always a need for more money."
The tight budgets have cost students in other ways.
In 1980, when Janet S. Malloy began working in the Philadelphia district, every school had a librarian. Now only one in four does, said Malloy, president of the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians.
"It's a travesty," she said.