Surely, if the Newspaper Guild and our bosses could cut $6 million out of our $46 million payroll budget, then the city and the school district can cut $110 million from their multibillion-dollar pit of quicksand.

What you come to realize when you negotiate a contract - especially when your industry is in free fall - is that some form of lifesaving compromise is inevitable.

The city schools are in free fall. We're spending a fortune we don't have to get unprepared workers and low graduation rates. It should not be acceptable to spend even more money to get poor results.

When my union sat at the bargaining table with a management looking for cuts from our side, our first response was "What are you going to cut on your side?" After a few minutes of blank stares and crickets chirping, our second response was to help management find ways to save money while minimizing our own pain.

Yesterday, I tried to pretend I was a teacher and do that with next year's school-district budget, but it's difficult to figure out where to cut costs when the costs are a big secret.

Here at the paper, where I have a better understanding of where the money goes, I could cut a few hundred grand before you reach the end of this column. It's far more difficult balancing the budget of the Nation of Ackermania.

So I turned to the district's numbers from last year, which are so vague on its website that I could only make "educated" guesses. And, granted, the real numbers may be different from what the website says, and my estimations are a bit fast and loose, but the purpose here is merely to get a dialogue started. Real cuts can be made only when there are real numbers.

But based on the numbers at www.phila.k12.pa.us/about, the district's adopted operating budget for 2010-2011 was about $2.4 billion for 155,000 students, K-12.

That's $15,963 per student (close to $30,000 per student if you count only the ones who graduate high school), which seems like a substantial sum of money to get so little in return.

So where does that $2.4 billion go?

The district employs 453 principals - more than needed since there aren't 453 schools - but it's always good to have a bench. Let's say the average principal makes $150,000 per year (I don't mean to imply that any principals are average).

That's $68 million for principals. For good benefits let's toss in another $23 million.

The district has 11,042 teachers. Many of them are not actually teaching, or the student-teacher ratio would be much better, but let's say the average teacher makes $75,000. That's $828.2 million. My teachers need benefits, specifically psychiatry after dealing with your kids all day, so that's another $276 million.

We've now staffed all our schools (plus some schools we don't even have) with principals and teachers and we've spent $1.195 billion.

Alas, the kids have to eat. The district serves 132,117 meals per day, about 24.5 million a year. Let's say that each of those meals costs $2. That's almost another $50 million per year.

Peanuts.

In fact, except for the allergy ramifications, peanuts would be cheaper and healthier.

The district transports 37,551 students per day to and from school on yellow buses.

Let's pay our 1,300 bus drivers $50,000 per year (complete guess) - so, there's another $65 million. Our 1,300 buses are going to need 50 mechanics to fix them and repair the seats that your children have destroyed - chuck in another $3 million for their salaries. All their benefits? Another $23 million.

Since it's too much to ask the district to have hybrid buses, we have to fuel these guzzlers. Here, your guess is as good as mine, but let's say 25 gallons per day at $4 gallon (I'd like to think the district buys in bulk). That brings our fuel costs to $130,000 per day or $24 million per year.

Physically transporting our students and feeding them, thus adds $165 million to our expenses. We're now at $1.36 billion.

Yes, our schools need administrators, support staff, maintenance personnel, lunchroom staff, crossing guards, library books, supplies and capital improvements, but we've done all the heavy educational lifting in our budget and we still have $1 billion left for district overhead.

No budget this big doesn't have fat - and I'm talking "Biggest Loser" fat, the low-hanging fat you burn off the first week of the diet.

Give a few independent educators, journalists and accountants access to the district budget and we could cut $110 million without eliminating one cent actually spent on education - let alone full-day kindergarten.

That's the least that should happen before anyone talks about raising taxes.