THE SCHOOL district's plan to close its huge budget gap undermines the very bedrock of what we know works in education: early childhood support, full-day kindergarten, transportation, manageable class size. But when the district is faced with a deficit of more than $600 million, are there better solutions?
Much of the public attention has been rightly focused on Harrisburg. But no matter what comes out of the final state budget debate, both the city government and the district need a multitiered, short- and long-term approach toward addressing its finances. The district also needs some serious reconsideration of its leadership if it expects more money.
First, Philadelphia needs a coalition-building approach toward Harrisburg. District officials have been organizing a series of bus trips and rallies to protest the governor's budget. But local leaders ought to know that actions that include only Philadelphians and feature the controversy-laden district in a prominent role will have limited impact.
A stronger tactic would be to build alliances with districts and education supporters across the state, all of whom have benefited from improved school funding. This type of alliance helped win the historic Rendell-era funding formula in the first place.
Second, while the mayor made laudable remarks on primary night about working "with urgency for educational excellence," City Hall's track record has fallen short on a number of fronts.
The share of property tax going to the schools has declined from 60 percent to 55 percent, a difference of almost $60 million, according to the district's finance office. In fact, the city contribution to schools has barely budged from 2007-08 levels, even as property taxes have increased. The city has also held on to sacred cows like uber-generous property-tax abatements. A 2008 Inquirer analysis showed that by 2012, the schools would forfeit more than $100 million over the course of the program.
City officials need to drop complaints that the district is a state-run agency, which absolves them of any real responsibility. The mayor appoints two of the five members on the School Reform Commission, including Chairman Robert Archie, whose ethical lapses have tarnished the SRC's reputation. Instead, the mayor must take an active approach built around local financing, particularly given the current financial crisis.
Harrisburg has clearly invested in the city's schools. It wouldn't serve our schools to plead a case before the legislature if City Hall doesn't demonstrate a concerted level of investment as well. The mayor should work to restore the district's 60 percent share of property tax revenue. He can start by allocating $38.5 million to cover the proposed loss of transportation services for tens of thousands of public-, private- and parochial-school students. This would help address concerns that any new money for the schools go only to essential services.
District spending priorities also need serious review. Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch has offered to open the district's books to invite any viable solutions. Let's take him up on that offer.
It's alarming that the district has so prominently targeted for cuts programs that we know work while leaving in place questionable initiatives and pet projects. For instance, it still plans to spend $23 million on an 18-day summer-school program and has budgeted $24 million to double the expansion of the Promise Academies, despite a less-than-laudatory recent study.
The district spends $400 million a year on services. It claims that about 75 percent is nondiscretionary, like utilities. That still leaves $100 million for things like professional services that aren't competitively bid, extraneous testing and more than $4 million paid to the city for the Bureau of Revision of Taxes. The district should identify and publish all contracts that cost more than the mean salary of a teacher, say $50,000. It needs to enforce competitive bidding across the board, and eliminate contracts that don't involve essential services.
FINALLY, in any crisis, integrity matters. The public has to trust that the leaders making such dramatic decisions abide by a sense of stewardship, ethics and shared vision. For example, the current budget forecast banks $75 million on the district's ability to renegotiate its labor contracts. But if district officials refuse to budge on their own exceptionally high salaries, it seems a stretch to expect others making far less to do so.
Public officials love to say "it's about the kids" when talking about the schools. In a time of crisis, that commitment must mean identifying the district's essential mission. It's not about rhetoric but priorities and a need to exercise real discipline.