Screaming and yelling is not unknown at School Reform Commission meetings, but last week’s meeting was loud by any standard. The SRC met and approved a bare-bones budget that few are happy with, and parents and activists weren’t shy about saying how little they thought of a budget that leaves many schools without nurses, police officers and office supplies; could lead to mass layoffs; and counts on more than $200 million in borrowing, even though officials say the school district has already borrowed more than it should.
It’s a budget so unpleasant that even school leaders say it’s inadequate, and more than 50 parent organizations signed on to a "vote of no-confidence" against it.
But there is one big difference in how the SRC is conducting its business that represents a departure from past commissions: The SRC seems to be listening.
When the budget was first released, the SRC planned to vote quickly on a proposal to completely reconfigure the school district by chopping up the district into "achievement networks" of schools, which could be run by outside organizations. The district was also going to pilot an "achievement network" next school year. But that plan, created with the help of the Boston Consulting Group, landed with a thud.
Teachers, unions and community members blasted the idea. They pointed out that the restructuring plan looked eerily similar to others that the Boston Consulting Group thought up for completely different places, like New Orleans and Australia. They questioned how outside groups would be held accountable for running schools. And, speaking of accountability, they wondered why the Boston Consulting Group wasn’t being held up to more public scrutiny.
They voiced these concerns at the schools’ community meetings and budget hearings, which more than 1,500 people attended in May. School district spokesman Fernando Gallard says that attendance at the community meetings has tripled since last year.
What makes the schools’ meetings unusual is that the SRC members didn’t finalize their decisions first and then hold meetings as a feel-good gesture. Instead, they actually acted differently after hearing the angry mob.
SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos says the meetings inspired officials to make two big changes. They decided to delay their vote on the "achievement networks" and scrap the plan to pilot one next school year. The SRC also changed the way it will close dozens of schools. Now, officials will solicit community feedback on the actual criteria used to determine which schools will be shut down.
It’s not every day that officials revise their plans in response to public outcry. The fact that they have speaks to the evolution of the SRC as well as to strength of the activists who rallied against its proposals.
The SRC has the unenviable task of correcting a questionable fiscal course that the district has been traveling for many years, which has not been helped by the state’s ongoing cuts to education. Parents, unions and advocates are right to voice their concerns, and we hope they’ll consider the idea of taking their protests directly to Harrisburg, and make sure the General Assembly and the governor get a taste of their outrage. Without them, it’s going to be even harder to mend one of the most broke (and broken) school districts in the country.
This It's Our Money editorial originally appeared in the Daily News.