IF ELECTED OFFICIALS donated $100 to the school district every time they said, "It's about the children," we could close the district's canyon-wide financial gap without resorting to raising taxes. But clearly it's not about the children. It's about the adults, our elected officials.
Why else, with the budget clock ticking down (the city needs to pass a budget by June 30), would Mayor Nutter and City Council just now be haggling over how to close the gap?
The district's financial woes have been known for many months. Yet Nutter has waited until the last possible moment to propose an increase in taxes to bail out the district.
He never mentioned the possibility in his rosy budget speech three months ago. In fact, he said precisely the opposite:
"There are no tax increases in the budget that I propose today. . . . The people of this city have given enough. And so to balance our budget we will not ask for more revenue from our citizens."
Three months later, "our citizens" are being asked to fork over more money to buy soda, park cars or own real estate.
This last-minute tax surprise looks a lot like a deliberate strategy: Delay and hide the inevitable until the mayor and Council members were safely past the primary election.
We went through an entire campaign without ever discussing the financial woes of the district and its possible ramifications. Concerned about their jobs, elected officials engaged in a conspiracy of silence.
So much for citizen engagement and transparency, two supposed hallmarks of the Nutter administration.
The message is clear: Elected officials come first. If this were the Titanic - and there are striking similarities - elected officials would be on the lifeboats while children and families remained on deck.
Safely ashore after his election victory over an opponent recently released from federal prison, Captain Nutter finally announced the inevitable: Taxpayers need to bail out the district.
It's the biggest bait-and-switch since former Mayor Frank Rizzo went though his 1975 mayoral campaign boasting about holding the line on taxes, only to impose the largest tax hike in the city to that point once he'd been re-elected. This ignited a vigorous recall effort that was declared illegal by the state Supreme Court by a one-vote margin.
To make matters worse, Nutter has misdiagnosed the problem. The district's financial plight is not simply a case of reduced federal and state revenues; it's also an issue of mismanagement and accountability.
First, city taxpayers are being asked prematurely to put up money to save full-day kindergarten, which has become the rallying cry to hit up taxpayers.
Last Friday, much to Nutter's surprise, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman announced that she'd found money to save full-day kindergarten, effectively taking a chain saw to the tax limb the mayor was clinging to. Clumsily tripping over each other's feet, Ackerman and Nutter clearly are not ready to partner on "Dancing With the Stars." (Even before Ackerman's announcement, the House of Representatives included $21.5 million in its budget for full-day kindergarten for the district, a good indication that Gov. Corbett's cut eventually might be reversed.)
Moreover, whatever taxes are raised should not go directly to the district. The money should go into a dedicated education fund that the city can allocate to the district once it meets certain criteria and answers specific questions and a legitimate oversight process is ensured.
Should the district be expanding programs like Renaissance Schools before there is credible evidence that those schools are producing the desired results?
How is money being spent, department-by-department? What are the staffing levels compared with comparable school districts? And salary levels, for that matter?
With a budget of almost $3 billion, the school district doesn't get nearly the same financial oversight as city government, where department heads have to testify in front of City Council, and the budget and five-year plan have to be given the seal of Good Housekeeping by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority.
The School Reform Commission, which answers to nobody, has failed miserably in providing vigorous oversight. In this latest go-round, one member voted "no" on the budget, while three others voted for it, with one doing so "reluctantly." (Corbett has yet to name a replacement for David Girard di Carlo, who almost a year ago warned about the financial tsunami.)
The unhelpful SRC simply tossed its hot potato to Nutter, who has handed it off to City Council.
If the hot potato is going to fall into the laps of taxpayers now, let's not simply put the check in the mail to the school district. Let's make sure that controls are in place on how this money is spent. If our elected officials really do care about the children, it's the least they can do.