The old saying that adversity births opportunity should be applied to the Philadelphia School District's fiscal crisis, which represents a golden opportunity to rethink not only how the school system spends money, but also how the district should be governed, and how City Hall should allocate tax revenue.
The district is staring at a $629 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1, unless it gets either a very large infusion of new cash or drastically cuts both programming and staff.
The shortage is due to a billion-dollar cut in state funding to all public schools and the loss of federal stimulus money after two years. A proposal passed by the state House restores only $240 million in school funding. Even if Philadelphia got all of that, it wouldn't solve its problem.
So, Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman appeared at a City Council hearing Tuesday to ask for aid above the $815 million the city was scheduled to provide the district to meet its $2.8 billion budget. She got a generally positive reception. No one said no.
In fact, Mayor Nutter was supportive of the district's proposal that the city come up with an additional $110 million. Nutter said his support wasn't "political posturing," which is believable since giving more money to a poorly performing school district isn't exactly popular.
Properly reflecting that point of view, several Council members asked Ackerman a lot of questions. While some Council members sounded agreeable to giving the schools more money, there appeared to be little support for a tax increase to provide the funds.
That's good, not because the schools shouldn't get more money, but because Nutter already raised taxes to get the city through the recession, and because needed changes in the way the city assesses property for taxation still haven't been made.
One idea is to increase the percentage of property-tax revenue the city dedicates to schools. That wouldn't require taxpayers to pay more, but the mayor and Council will have to decide which, if any, services might be reduced to allow the reallocation of revenue.
How to manage taxes and spending is always a worthwhile discussion. Nutter and Council should also discuss whether the state-created School Reform Commission has been the fiscal steward it was envisioned to be. Successive superintendents have had deficits under the SRC's watch.
Couldn't the district have done more to avoid the deficits? Ackerman, for example, still hasn't adequately explained why the district didn't better prepare for the anticipated loss of stimulus funds. Nor did it prepare for the austere budget of a new Republican governor who had expressed his disdain for throwing money at schools.