The state Department of Education is breaking the law and endangering city schoolchildren by leaving empty the office of an independent watchdog who monitors violence in Philadelphia classrooms, Pennsylvania's auditor general said yesterday.

In sharply worded letters to state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak and Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman, Jack Wagner said the job, formerly held by Jack Stollsteimer, must be restored.

"We truly feel that the two of them have to work this out, even if it's not in the budget," Wagner said in an interview. "They have to do it now."

In a letter, Wagner wrote, "The importance of the Philadelphia Safe Schools Advocate cannot be overstated. The safety of the children of the School District of Philadelphia is directly related to the existence of this statutorily required independent position."

A state spokesman said others would do the office's work, and a district spokesman said the job must be funded by the state to remain independent.

Wagner, whose office has been auditing the school district all year, enclosed an interim finding on this matter with the letters to Zahorchak and Ackerman.

Citing budget woes, state officials shut the office last month. Stollsteimer, a former U.S. attorney, has said he believes the move was retaliation for his telling the truth about violence in city schools.

Legislators worried about escalating violence in Philadelphia classrooms established the job nearly a decade ago. Stollsteimer took it in 2006.

He drew state ire last year when he released a report that called the district's disciplinary system "dysfunctional and unjust," and said the district violated state law by refusing to expel students who took weapons to school. State officials refused to release his report, calling it "inaccurate and misleading," then put out their own version, which reached similar conclusions.

The district has since begun to expel students again.

Though Stollsteimer and others say the district has made progress, the 25 schools on the state's "persistently dangerous list" - schools so unsafe that parents have the right to transfer their children out - are all in Philadelphia.

Responding to the letter, Department of Education spokesman Michael Race said the department "will continue to carry out the functions of the safe-schools law, but we do not agree with the interpretation that the advocate's position itself is statutorily required. It is the functions of the office that are required, and we are working with existing PDE staff to fulfill those functions."

Wagner sharply disagreed, and said the position must exist despite the state's budget crisis and said the law specifically refers to an independent office.

Although the burden of funding the office falls on the state, Wagner said the district is also on the hook for making sure the office exists.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said Ackerman received the letter yesterday but had not had a chance to read it. Because the decision to shut the office was not the district's, Wagner's remarks are misdirected, he said.

"The school district has made significant strides in improving school safety, and we are committed to making greater progress in the future," Gallard said. "We worked cooperatively and constructively with the safe-schools advocate. Our commitment to improving school safety is absolute and will continue undiminished, whether there is a Safe School Advocate Office or not."

Ackerman had hinted at possibly finding a job for Stollsteimer in the district, but Wagner said he did not believe that was "the optimal course of action for the district's students."

Wagner said he had urged Zahorchak to act.

"This is not something they can wait and act on a month, or two months, or six months down the road," the auditor general said. "Parents need to know their children are safe in school and that the government is doing everything they can to assure that."