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The city and District funding crisis: Use 2002 as a model for 2013





by Michael Masch

I am struck by how many supposedly politically sophisticated public school advocates appear to be urging City Council to give the Philadelphia School District more money, independent of what the state does. If that happens, most of the horrible cuts now looming will still occur, since $60 million represents less than 20 percent of the District’s identified 2013-14 budget gap.

It seems to me that Council President Darrell Clarke has a point when he says that Council has already increased city funding for the District two years in a row, even as the Commonwealth was cutting and freezing its funding, and it's just not smart for the city to do that again.

But here’s a thought. Rather than providing no more new city funding or providing new funding without conditions, which is what has occurred in the last two years, wouldn’t it make more sense if the mayor and Council were to say to the governor and General Assembly that the city will provide a third round of additional funding to the schools, but only if it is matched two to one by the state?

This is not so far-fetched. Mayor John Street did exactly that in 2002. Take a look at the deal that Street made with then-Gov. Mark Schweiker. A lot of people have forgotten that 11 years ago, with the District facing bankruptcy, Philadelphia's city government took the position that rescuing and reforming Philadelphia's public schools needed to be a city-state partnership -- both from a funding perspective and from a governance perspective. Ultimately, that position prevailed, and in 2002 and 2003, the Commonwealth provided roughly $2 in new state funding for every $1 of new city funding. Fiscal stability was restored, new District leadership was recruited, academic achievement began to improve, and school choice was enhanced through the expansion of charter schools.

Now we seem to have a near mirror image of the 2002 situation. In 2013 it seems that the city is expected to increase its funding every year – and it did so in 2011 and 2012. Yet the Commonwealth has given no indication that it is prepared to restore any of the $317 million in state funding that it cut in 2012 (and has essentially frozen since), no matter what this does to the quality of public education in Philadelphia. But the state retains control of the schools that it obtained back in 2002 specifically in exchange for assuming greater financial responsibility for the District.

It is time for the citizenry of Philadelphia (and Pennsylvania) to recall just what “the deal,” struck more than a decade ago, was that led to the creation of the School Reform Commission and the abolition of the former city-controlled Board of Education.   

The Philadelphia School District didn’t create this crisis. The District actually had balanced budgets -- and small surpluses -- in 2009, 2010, and 2011, before the state funding cuts began. It is not only unjust but simply not feasible for the current crisis to be resolved unless the Commonwealth is jointly responsible with the city for restoring the School District to solvency.

Michael Masch is the vice president of finance and chief financial officer at Manhattan College and the former chief financial officer of the School District of Philadelphia.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.


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