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Questions to ask about the District and school budgets





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It is hard to find someone in the system who trusts the current School District budget. It’s doubtful that more than a few fully understand it.

The District's budget is in many ways a masterpiece of obfuscation, with a design that dates back to former CEO/Superintendent Paul Vallas, who was an accountant by training. The current version fulfills the District’s obligation to publish an annual budget. But the document’s design features and the survival climate created by the continuing financial crisis have given central administration almost complete control over allocation decisions.

Assuming that the District is going to use the same budget format for fiscal year 2015 and the 2014-15 school year, there is much that will not be revealed. But what follows is a set of questions that parents, advocates, District employees, City Council and others should ask if they are going to support the School Reform Commission and superintendent in requesting additional funding from the city and the state, and if they hope to figure out what resources individual schools are being provided.

At various points the discussion may be somewhat technical, but hopefully the presentation will be clear.

Sometime in the next few weeks, principals will receive their schools' proposed 2014-15 budgets. Essentially, what they will get is a lump sum that they will use to “buy” positions and services. So if an elementary school is allocated $3 million and wants to have a principal, it has to pay $195,000 (including benefits) for that position.

That brings us to our first question. Why are schools charged so much for teaching positions?

For the current school year, elementary schools had to pay $108,500 for each teacher ($67,800 + 40,700 for benefits). That number makes no sense. The average Philadelphia teacher has five years of experience and receives a salary of about $50,000. Benefits in the District’s pricing are 60 percent of salary, when the standard is 30 to 35 percent in any organization providing health care, retirement, and Social Security.

The operative teacher cost is the primary reason that principals do not trust central office budget formulations – because a more reasonable teacher cost would be $65,000 to $70,000 per position. How does the District's chief financial officer explain the $40,000 difference? And on what basis is the $108,500 figure calculated?

A related question is why schools with a majority of experienced teachers are charged the same amount per teacher as schools with a majority of inexperienced teachers. That is, shouldn’t there be a balancing mechanism that provides extra resources for schools with inexperienced faculties? 

While we are looking into teachers, we should ask District officials for the formula for allocating teachers to schools and ask whether the number of teachers listed in the District budget matches the total number in school budgets.

There is also a set of questions to ask about individual school budgets: How much money is the school getting for books and supplies? For equipment like new computers? For services like computer repair? For professional development for teachers? For incidental expenses (petty cash)?

These questions lead to a policy issue. A recurring tension in the District and school budget development process is the degree of autonomy that principals and school leadership teams have in deciding how to spend their lump-sum budgets. That problem was accentuated last spring when the central office mandated cuts in counselors, nurses, librarians, and assistant principals, and then determined which schools would be provided these positions when some funding was restored. But even when principals could figure out how to pay for the positions, they were not permitted to do so, in violation of the school autonomy designations that many schools had been given at the start of the school year. What happened to school-based decision-making?

What about questions that relate to the District as a whole? How much is the District paying in debt service for both operating expenses and capital project loans? What does it cost to transport charter and private school students, a direct subsidy for those schools? Where is the federal Title I money that must be spent on professional development (15 percent of the total annual grant) and on parent engagement (1 percent)?

The District should also be more upfront about special education. Can the District provide mandated and timely special education services with the resources it has? If not, why hasn’t it sued the state and/or federal government?

The best way to get a feeling for the questions being posed is to pick a school you know well and carefully study its 2013-14 budget. Then, if you have the stamina, see whether you can answer the "District as a whole" questions -- and whatever other questions you may have -- by examining the District’s budget documents.

Keep in mind that the evidence is compelling that schools need autonomy in determining how to allocate their resources – students and communities vary so much, and central office directives constrain schools' ability to adapt. Beyond that, central decision-making fosters dependent, resentful, and compliance-driven behavior in schools.

More compelling is the evidence that having trusting, respectful relationships in schools is a precursor to improved student achievement. That means students need to trust teachers, teachers must trust the principal, parents must trust the teachers and principal, the community its schools, and they all need to trust those who lead and govern them – the superintendent, School Reform Commission, City Hall, the state Capitol. Nothing is more central to building organizational trust than the budget development process.

That said, it’s all too easy to give up, to be resigned, to consider the District’s situation as hopeless. But there are at least two good reasons to take time to make sense of the District’s proposed budget. The first is to determine what’s possible with the available resources and whether the funds can be spent differently. The second is to develop enough confidence in understanding the budget to be a forceful and persuasive advocate, whether for one’s school or for the District.

That may mean joining a school’s advisory council/management team. It may mean writing letters and e-mails to SRC members and the superintendent. It may mean appearing at an SRC meeting or City Council meeting and asking questions in a public forum. But without informed parent and community action, it’s unlikely that anything of moment will happen to improve the District’s situation or the fate of the city’s most underserved children.

(Note: The School District's website provides access to the District and individual school budgets, but they are not easy to navigate and as PDFs, they are not easily searchable. The schools are organized by region, then presented in alphabetical order. To access the budget information, start at “About Us” on the upper bar.)

James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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