School panel hit on budget

A growing coalition of parents and citizens yesterday accused the School Reform Commission of violating the state's open-meetings law - the Sunshine Act - by deliberating in private over the district's 2007-08 budget, which is scheduled to be voted on this morning.

If the five-member commission does not "properly address these concerns, we intend to take appropriate action including raising legal objections" at today's meeting, the leaders of five groups said in a joint statement.

The protesting groups are: Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Home and School Council, JUNTOS, the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change.

Helen Gym, a parent organizer and member of Parents United for Public Education, said it was suspicious that during Tuesday's six-hour public budget meeting the commissioners took a recess and emerged more than an hour later with $18 million in changes to the $2.18 billion proposed spending plan.

But Reform Commission Chairman James Nevels said the changes made to the budget proposal on Tuesday had been in the making for some time.

"We started with the original budget resolution, then over the course of last week and into the holiday weekend, we worked on an alternative budget resolution relating to those items," he said.

The changes include adding 100 cut teacher positions back to the budget and restoring $6 million of the $12 million that was cut from the budgets of six private management groups that have contracts to operate 41 schools.

Gym said the commission should postpone today's vote to give parents and others an opportunity to have input.

During Tuesday's meeting the commission's general counsel, Sherry Swirsky, and bond counsel, Joan Stern, warned that if the budget is not approved by today, it could cripple the district's ability to sell bonds.

The district would run out of money by the first week of July, they said.

A commission spokeswoman yesterday said the law had not been broken and that five public budget meetings had been held earlier this year. The Sunshine Act states: "Official action and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public . . . "

The law says some issues can be discussed in private, including litigation, personnel and real estate deals. *