WHEN school-district bigwigs appear before City Council tomorrow with cup in hand to present their $629 million-gap budget that threatens to put thousands of teachers and staff on unemployment, cancel full-day kindergarten, eliminate transportation and cut a host of other programs, I have no doubt the theme will be district as victim.
It's not our fault, officials will say. The federal stimulus program has ended, and Gov. Corbett has slashed funding for education. In short, the devil made us do it.
But let's remember that district officials knew for three years that the stimulus money was coming to an end, and they've known the new governor would have a mounting state deficit to deal with.
But let's for a moment give the district the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that the Corbett budget and the end of the stimulus program have presented the district with enormous challenges out of its control.
The fact remains the district would be facing a financial challenge if there had been no changes in federal or state funding.
Its total revenue loss for next fiscal year as a result of the winding down of stimulus dollars and the state's cutback amounts to $377 million. Yet the total budget gap is $629 million.
Do the math. There is a $252 million gap unrelated to federal or state funding.
The district attributes that gap to rising costs for things like pensions, health care, energy and charter schools. None of those increased costs is surprising; each has been well known for years.
Yet the district continued to spend money like a drunken sailor and dawdled in coming to grips with its fiscal reality.
And every day it wasted in preparing for the inevitable has made the day of reckoning more extreme. In October, for example, it knew it had a fiscal problem in excess of $400 million. But it wasn't until months later that it announced a hiring freeze or cut back in discretionary spending. There have been few if any layoffs. In fact, part of the district's financial plan to close the gap is an unspecified $20 million in operating efficiencies.
Why weren't those efficiencies identified and implemented many months ago? Instead, the district attitude has been "What me worry?" and it kept on spending.
It hired high-priced personnel, agreed to costly collective-bargaining agreements that it now threatens to tear up unilaterally, initially expanded charter schools without looking at performance measurements (something it now does) and has kept on expanding Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Renaissance School initiative even though it's too early to determine its effectiveness.
My guess is that full-day kindergarten and much of the transportation program will be restored. Their proposed elimination has been a ruse to get the public's dander up. Now that it's served its purpose, city and state elected officials will kick in more money.
But many of the cutbacks will remain and threaten an already challenged school system.
AFTER HIS primary victory, Mayor Nutter declared that his priorities begin with making Philadelphia "the education city." "I plan to devote the bulk of my time and effort to making sure the [city's children] get the resources they need," he was quoted as saying.
He should have been doing that from day one. Certainly, he has known of the district's financial problems for a couple of years. But he has been relatively silent on its finances and management.
I saw Nutter publicly ask tough, probing questions when he was a city councilman.
If he really wants an "education city," it's time for him to do that as mayor.