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Funding the plan: a big "if"

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The mayor’s Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr, has told the Notebook she has been assured by District Chief Business Officer Michael Masch that the District can afford to implement the Imagine 2014 plan “if we have adequacy in state funding.” She and the mayor are supporting approval of the plan.

But that’s a big “if.”

The Pennsylvania legislature adopted a historic commitment last year to follow a formula to achieve adequate funding for all school districts within six years. The premise of the state’s adequacy formula is that by 2014, Philadelphia will be getting $600 million more annually in education aid from the state than it received last year, according to figures from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Shorr’s conditional statement appears to support rumblings that the annual cost of the Imagine 2014 plan is far greater than the $50 or $60 million aggregate figures cited until recently by Superintendent Ackerman. At last week’s SRC meeting, she offered a figure of $160 million but then retracted it, saying she wasn’t sure what it included.

Since then, District officials have declined to put an overall price tag on the initiatives in Imagine 2014.

“The estimated first-year cost of implementation of Imagine 2014 will be revealed on Wednesday,” spokesperson Vincent Thompson said. (Note no promise of a five-year figure.)

Thompson also said that the District is “still working on responding to the Notebook’s request” for an external analysis by Public Financial Management about the costs of the plan. The Notebook requested a copy of that analysis April 16.

The District’s lump sum budget for 2009-10 assumes the availability of about $300 million more than last year, a massive revenue increase made possible by a one-time infusion of federal stimulus funds from several different streams. That should leave a lot of room for strategic plan initiatives.

Whether the state will be able to maintain its level of funding for the School District in future years in the face of the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression is uncertain. The adequacy formula would require the state to not only maintain this year’s increased level of basic education funding, but to come up with hundreds of millions in additional education funding in the subsequent four years. Unfortunately, the state’s adequacy formula does not include a plan for how those funds will be raised.

A Notebook analysis in March of the initial draft plan, predicting that it may exceed Ackerman’s initial estimate of “$50 million over five years,” pointed to items like class size reduction, expansion of guidance counselors, and implementation of the Reading Recovery program in elementary grades that would each likely cost in the tens of millions annually.

Many other items in the plan appear likely to have substantial price tags, including putting art and music in every elementary school, opening three new Career and Technical high schools, implementing an early warning indicator system at all grade levels for dropout prevention, and implementing three or five-day summer orientations for all kindergartners, sixth- and ninth-graders.

District officials have offered only that they have been working furiously for weeks on pricing out the individual items.

A letter from Parents United for Public Education to the four School Reform Commission members cited budget concerns in calling for a postponement of the scheduled April 22 vote on the strategic plan. “We have deep concerns about the lack of clarity within the plan specifically around priorities, a clear roadmap with benchmarks and intermediate goals, and a realistic budget,” the letter said. “In our experience, these are the exact reasons why the School District’s history is often littered with failed projects that started with great intent.”

Ackerman has often said in presenting her massive list of reforms and initiatives that she doesn’t believe money should be the issue – that Philadelphia students lack even the basics and her list comprises what they need. Shorr agreed that the District has been a victim of “horrible underfunding.” It would be hard to find an advocate that disagrees.

But it’s likely this school system is going to continue to have to make hard choices. Before adopting this as a roadmap for the next five years, the public – like the SRC – is owed more solid information about the full cost of Imagine 2014 and all its components.

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Paul Socolar

@PaulSocolar
Paul is the Notebook's former editor and publisher and also one of its founders in 1994.