Thursday is the public’s chance to comment on the Philadelphia School District’s $2.9 billion budget - the official budget hearing.
Last month, the School Reform Commission approved the broad outlines of its 2017-18 spending plan, which contained few specifics. Commissioner Bill Green voted against the so-called lump-sum statement, saying it did not give the district enough money to educate its 130,000 students.
Since that approval, the city has signaled that the district will be getting $65 million more annually from its coffers, thanks to a reassessment of commercial properties. How that will affect the district’s projected $900 million five-year deficit and the unsettled teachers contract is yet to be determined.
Presumably, members of the public will have some things to say about how the budget, the second-largest municipal spending plan behind only the city’s.
They might have a tough time voicing their opinions, though. Members of the public are required to register in advance to speak at SRC meetings and hearings. When some did just that, they were told there was a limit to the number of speakers on an agenda item - six speakers for the item, and six speakers against, as per commission policy.
That is, just 12 taxpayers were permitted to testify on a nearly $3 billion budget.
Some citizens were told they could speak on another topic - so, if they said they wanted to speak about the effect of the budget on English-language learners, that was OK, because that was technically a different topic than the budget. But they had to know to frame their testimony on that technicality.
As recently as Thursday afternoon, there was still confusion about who would be permitted to speak.
Kevin Geary, a district spokesman, said 19 people had registered.
Lisa Haver, a retired district teacher and founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, said members of her group had been told different things by different people when they tried to register to speak at the budget hearing.
Most recently, some were told that anyone who wished to testify would be allowed to register to do so on Thursday; typically speaker registration is cut off at 4:30 the day before an SRC meeting.
But others who called today had been told they could not register.
In prior years, just a handful of speakers registered. But in other years, the SRC has suspended its six speakers per-side rule for the budget hearing, and many members of the public testified.
Geary said this SRC was bound by its rules.
“That’s the policy,” said Geary.
He said that some speakers, when told the allotted number of speakers for the budget had registered, opted to modify their topic. Others registered to speak at next week’s SRC meeting.
Ignoring the fact that the SRC is holding a hearing on a budget with no details other than its total, Haver said, the limits to who can speak at a hearing specifically to discuss the budget just perpetuates a perception of a closed SRC.
“They certainly make it seem as if they don’t want to hear from people,” said Haver, a frequent district critic.
The public will have other opportunities for the to comment - at future SRC meetings, at budget hearings before City Council.
Final adoption of the budget is scheduled for next month.
Follow along - I’ll be livetweeting the budget hearing, scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m.