Who’s in charge?

When a school district has a $629 million budget gap, despite months of warnings that hard times are coming, then says it’s going to have to cut full-day kindergarten, then turns around and says actually, no, cutting that won’t be necessary after all — well, you start to wonder who’s in charge.

At the School District of Philadelphia, the people in charge are the members of the School Reform Commission. The SRC is a five-member body created by state law and charged with overseeing the district’s educational and financial affairs. The SRC hired Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and approves her budgets.

But the SRC is unelected, which means voters looking to hold someone accountable need to ask who’s in charge of the SRC. And that’s where things get tricky. The Educational Accountability Agreement signed yesterday by the city, state and SRC is aimed at enhancing oversight, because all of these folks are maybe-kinda-sorta in charge of the SRC.

Strengths Weaknesses Worth Mentioning
Appoints three of the five members of the SRC. Also has a big say in how much gets spent on education in Pennsylvania and on what programs. Can’t remove SRC members except “for cause” (meaning a serious infraction). Hasn’t historically reviewed the district’s books, because the state budgets for schools statewide, not for individual districts. The SRC’s current gubernatorial appointees were put there by former Gov. Ed Rendell. One of them, David Girard DiCarlo, resigned in February, and Gov. Corbett has yet to replace him.
Appoints two members of the SRC. He also has a bully pulpit in the city and helps decide how much money the city gives to the schools (they now get 30 percent of their money from city sources). Like the governor, the mayor can’t remove SRC members except for cause. More importantly, the mayor can’t remove money from the district. When the state created the SRC, it was worried the city would skimp on school funding, so it banned the city from lowering its contribution to the district — ever. Even if the mayor doesn’t like something the schools are doing, he has to keep paying for it. The SRC’s Educational Accountability Agreement aims to open the district’s books, improve transparency and involve the city and state more in decision-making. The agreement also says the district should begin long-term financial planning, something it does not do now.
Approves the state budget, so it has a say in education policy and spending. Has no say over SRC appointments and doesn’t review the district’s books when it budgets, because it doesn’t budget for individual districts. How much do you think a state rep from Elk County cares about Philadelphia schools?
Approves the city budget, so it has the power to increase funding for schools. The district also comes before Council for a budget hearing each year. Like the mayor, Council can’t decrease funding to the schools, and it has had trouble getting the district to answer questions at budget hearings. The accountability agreement requires the district to fully cooperate with Council’s inquiries.
The city’s auditor has “post-audit” authority over the schools, meaning he can audit the district’s books for the prior year. Lacks “pre-audit” authority, which would enable him to look at the district’s books and approve spending as the year goes along. Also lacks “performance auditing” authority, which would give him the ability to review the effectiveness of district programs. A recent report by the controller found several accounting errors in the district’s books.