Hoping to avoid the raucous, angry budget hearings of last year, the Philadelphia School District is tackling a new concept for next year's spending plan.

It's called "Community Engagement" and starting Tuesday, key community groups will meet with district officials to discuss the fiscal 2009 budget.

Then on Jan. 2, interim chief executive Tom Brady will start hosting a blog so people may keep up with the budget process and ask him questions directly.

Brady announced the plan at the School Reform Commission's planning meeting yesterday.

He said the district learned a lesson from the volatile hearings last spring after a budget deficit that started at $21 million last fall grew to $77 million and eventually to $180 million by June.

Parents were angry that the deficit meant that schools lost teachers and librarians, and that some children were in overcrowded classrooms.

"It was just not a good process," Brady said late yesterday. "We owe it to our stakeholders to do much better."

At least one parent leader agreed.

"It is vital that the district include parents in the budgeting process in a real way," said Gerald Wright, of Parents United for Public Education.

The community engagement plan calls for:

* At least three meetings with key community groups between December and April.

* Eight meetings in each of the district's geographical regions, which may be at night.

* And parent training on the school councils' role in the budget at each school that gets federal Title I money for low-income students.

But Brady added a word of caution.

"I don't want to overpromise and underdeliver," Brady said.

"We're still going to have to make a lot of very hard [budget decisions]. But it's better to do it in a collaborative way rather than to surprise the stakeholders in May and June."*