Some shortfall

Under the tentative state budget deal, the Philadelphia School District expects to receive an additional $306 million in funding.

Gov. Rendell has yet to sign the state budget, and already the school district is crying about an expected $160 million budget gap.

What gives?

Don’t be fooled by the phrasing. This is hardly a budget gap. The school district is getting hundreds of millions of dollars more from the state than it received last year.

In fact, the district’s budget of $3.2 billion is about 11.5 percent more than last year. Given the tough economic times, the district should be feeling pretty flush.

In reality, the district is just getting less of an increase than what Rendell originally proposed earlier in the year. That increase is on top of the $53 million in additional basic education funding the school district received from the state last year.

The money is well needed for the struggling school district. But the district’s alleged budget woes are mainly of its own making.

It was clear months ago that lawmakers and Rendell were miles apart over the state budget, especially for education. The protracted stalemate in Harrisburg certainly didn’t help school officials finalize their spending plan.

But it’s clear the school district’s budget was overly ambitious. With the economy ailing and tax revenues falling, school officials should have been more realistic about how much money would come from Harrisburg.

Now the school district is scrambling to make spending cuts. But first the district should hold public hearings and spell out its spending plans and any cuts.

The public should have a chance to weigh in on the plans. At the very least, school spending should be transparent.
Community activist Helen Gym believes public hearings on a revised budget proposal are warranted. “We need to have a public dialogue,” she said.

Chief Business Officer Michael Masch doesn’t anticipate hearings, but said the district would be accountable to the School Reform Commission and the public.

Although not required to, former school CEO Paul Vallas held budget hearings in 2006 after a surprise deficit of $73 million was disclosed. That gap undermined public confidence in school officials and raised questions of transparency and accountability.

The stakes are even higher this year, with major reforms planned by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. The ambitious five-year plan is expected to cost $126 million in the first-year alone.

It remains unclear if Ackerman will be forced to scale back on her reforms or if cuts will be implemented elsewhere.
Improving the city public schools will cost money, but the dollars must be spent wisely. Ackerman should detail the budget plans and allow for public input in how its tax dollars are spent.