Elmer Smith: City-school agreement creates education a la carte

THERE THEY were, the mayor, the schools superintendent and City Council, all hugged up together for their new family photo.

They've been family for years, but never this close. In the past, the mayor and Council pretended to be involved parents and the district pretended to care. In truth, their relationship was limited to sending or receiving the annual child-support checks.

This seemed to work for both. City government distanced itself from student outcomes, and the district enjoyed the autonomy that comes with indifference.

All of that changed this year with the onset of the perennial school-funding crisis. When the funding gap widened to $629 million, it was tough-love time. The city had to stage a family intervention.

Which is why, when Council voted yesterday to spend an additional $53 million on schools, it ushered in a new era in city-district relations.

Call it education a la carte. For our $53 million, Council got to choose from a prix-fixe menu of budget line items. It opted for the yellow school buses, reduced class sizes, early-childhood education and a few accelerated schools.

In exchange for his full-throated advocacy for additional funding, the mayor got something called the Educational Accountability Agreement, which gives him open-ended access to the district's ledgers.

This is a be-careful-what-you-ask-for moment because when money comes with strings attached, they're attached on both ends. Council can no longer say it just signs the checks, and the mayor can no longer claim that he doesn't know what's going on over there.

Which is how it should be. I'm not a fan of elected school boards, but I think that voters should expect more accountability than they are getting from the people who opt to spend their money on schools.

That avenue is the mayor and Council. If schools aren't performing, somebody needs to answer to the public for that, and it needs to be somebody that the public can hire or fire.

Nutter, bless his heart, seems eager to forge this new partnership. Even some of the most reluctant Council members are on board.

And Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has been around long enough to know how to work within the structures of this new level of scrutiny.

"I'm not threatened by this in any way," she told me yesterday. "I'm all for transparency and the engagement of the city in the process.

"I was happy about it because I thought maybe it would have a positive impact. Our chief stakeholders are sometimes quiet. I've worked in eight districts, and this is the way it's done in most of them.

"We have to be really clear about what our common goals are and our strategies for achieving them.

"I hope we will work together to decide the 'what' in terms of our goals. The 'how' should be left to those of us who have to implement the strategies."

If that last part sounded a little ominous, it wasn't meant to be. Ackerman has been dealing with people who choose from the prix-fixe menu for years.

The state, which is the district's real custodial parent and principal funder, has always identified specific targets. Ackerman said that she would not be surprised if any new money that comes from the state this year will be even more closely targeted.

"When you're in charge of the money," she said, "you get to determine where it goes. We can only hope that we have articulated clearly what we think."

Councilman Jim Kenney was one of the last holdouts for the real-estate tax hike. When we talked just before Council voted, he was fully engaged.

"New Jersey always talks about how their schools work," Kenney said. "Well, ours work, too. We're just no good at telling that story.

"That's why I don't mind casting this tough vote, even though I'm going to get flak for it."

Send email to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ElmerSmith