Philadelphia's school system is in a deep, deep budget hole, and there is no good way out. The cuts now planned in order to balance the budget will be devastating. And yet they may not be enough to close the School District's $629 million gap.
Can something be done to limit the damage to our children and schools? For starters, all Pennsylvanians should demand a change of course from our elected officials in Harrisburg, particularly the ideologues who care about nothing but lower taxes. It's appalling that Gov. Corbett and his allies are planning education cuts that hit needy communities the hardest. They are wiping out the more equitable funding system put into place just a few years ago.
And where is our mayor? He and City Council should be called to task for allowing School District revenues to stagnate and its share of property taxes to fall from 60 to 55 percent. The elimination of full-day kindergarten and student transportation should not even be on the table – local government has the duty and the wherewithal to protect the families and future of the city.
At the School District, it's time to wake up and smell the toast burning. Nine years ago, the system was turned over to an appointed, state-controlled School Reform Commission because the District supposedly could not manage its own finances. On that measure, the SRC is an abject failure too – twice in four years, we've seen a massive budget crisis that caught its overseers unprepared. The SRC failed to rein in the spending of Superintendent Ackerman, who chose to use up every dollar of the District's surplus and reserves this year, while for months failing to acknowledge the impending crisis.
It's time to figure out how best to restore and reinvigorate local control of the School District and its budget. We need to move beyond ritualized community meetings where the public gives input, but little changes. If Mayor Nutter wants to be the education mayor, he should set an example for engagement. Until the crisis is resolved, he should be regularly attending SRC meetings, making sure those in charge monitor every penny. It's time to treat this looming disaster with the urgency it deserves.