In a move to reduce tensions over school funding, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, the district, and City Council signed an agreement Wednesday intended to ensure timely information-sharing and give Council a voice in the district's financial planning.
Patterned after a state law that established the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) to oversee finances in 1991 - when the city was on the brink of insolvency - this new, less formal arrangement gives Council influence in the district's budgeting process.
The district has agreed to give Council quarterly school management reports, allow Council to give input on the district's five-year financial plans, and provide intensive briefings each quarter on the district's finances.
To demonstrate the new era of greater openness, a podium was replaced by a table large enough to accommodate Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., SRC Chair Marjorie Neff, Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who chairs the Council's education committee.
"We really appreciate the fact that we are here [Wednesday] sitting at the same table, clearly feeling the love, so to speak," Clarke said.
Neff, who signed the two-page document along with Hite, Clarke, and Blackwell, said the agreement would increase communication among the district, the SRC, and City Council.
Hite said the agreement "provides for a level of transparency, in my opinion, that does not exist at the moment." He said all of the reports submitted to Council would be publicly available.
The news is timely. Next Wednesday, Council is to hold a hearing on a bill that would transfer $25 million to the district.
Council has agreed to give $70 million in new money to the schools but has attached strings to the final portion of it, the $25 million.
The district badly needs Council's approval - the long-delayed state budget means it's already starting to have cash-flow problems and without intervention could be out of money by November.
On Wednesday, Clarke said that the agreement "sets us on a path so that we can come to the conclusion to put that much-needed $25 million into the School District."
After blasting school officials for a lack of information in the spring, Clarke renewed the charge in the summer, firing off a sharply worded letter to Hite.
The Council president questioned Hite's administrative hires and reminded the superintendent that Council still held the $25 million.
Clarke, at the time, said Hite's responses to Council's request "tell me nothing." He has made it clear that he believes Council ought to have a more formal fiscal oversight role over the schools, and that he does not like the SRC as a governance structure.
Under terms of the 2001 law that led to the state takeover of city schools, three members of the SRC are appointed by the governor; two are named by the mayor.
Clarke said Council hearings on the district's budget in the past sometimes were "testy" because the Council was required to raise taxes to make up for the reductions in state funds.
"Today we can solve this issue and what people believe is the contentious nature between Council and the School District, particularly between me and the good brother, Dr. Hite," Clarke said.
But the Council president said that the intergovernmental cooperation agreement would not solve the district's problems.
"What's going to fix the School District is annualized state funding that's mandated by the state constitution," Clarke said.
Blackwell said the agreement would be a way to provide funding for the schools so "we don't have to go through these scare tactics and have schoolchildren come to Council every year. It's just a wonderful thing to do."
Clarke said the agreement, unlike the law that established PICA, did not require approval by the legislature - or even votes by the SRC or Council.
He said representatives of the district, the commission, and Council had authority to sign the document.
Inquirer staff writer Tricia Nadolny contributed to this article.