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Questions to ask about the District and school budgets

By James H. Lytle on Feb 19, 2014 04:04 PM

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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Comments (9)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 19, 2014 9:15 pm
How can you trust a system that basically wants itself to fail?
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 20, 2014 7:43 am
Thanks Dr. Lytle for reminding me. Trust Formation is the single most element of effective leadership. Without Trust a leader is powerless to lead.They can manage to some degree, but never 'lead" to any effective extent. Kouzes and Posner studied effective leaders worldwide and found that -- "The most important single item was the leader's display of trust in others." (1986). The other of almost equal importance is "credibility" of a leader in the eyes of the followers. Trust must be earned. So must credibility be earned. Both are at an all time low in the School District of Philadelphia, and that is The Major Issue in all of this. That was clear to see at the "Ethics" policy meeting Tuesday evening.
Submitted by World Cup Soccer Tv Schedule (not verified) on March 28, 2014 9:29 am
The winners will qualify for the UEFA Europe League 2011-2012 if they have not nevertheless experienced for the Champions League.The Footbal League Cup, currently known as the Carling Club because of to sponsorship causes. Considering that 1982, the cup has been named right after its sponsors this sort of as Littlewoods Problem Cup, Coca Cola Cup or Worthington Cup. The competitors is played on a knockout foundation like the FA Cup but only accepts ninety two entries (twenty golf equipment of The Leading League 72 from the Football League). Like the FA Cup, the winners qualify for the UEFA Europa League. Pursuing this, the groups from Pot 2 will be drawn at random into every group, nonetheless there are caveats. The European staff that is moved to Pot 2 will only be set in a group with a single of the 4 South American seeds. These South American seeds will be put into a temporary Pot X. 1 of these 4 groups will be drawn, and that is the group the European group will be place in. The relaxation of the groups in Pot 2 will then be drawn at random into Groups A to H in get (skipping the Group which the European staff has presently been drawn in).
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on February 20, 2014 9:49 am
There is NO financial crisis except the one orchestrated by Broad, Gates, ALEC etc. It's smoke and mirrors, Austerity for poor and middle class, Apartheid in the inner cities. It ALL started with 9/11 and isn't that a coincidence with all The Patriot Act nonsense to follow?? 13 years later and this is where we are with corporations and big money riding herd on everybody else without any retaliation nor blocking from Bush nor Obama. Hite is a puppet, of course, as is Nutter and One Term Tom, Scott Walker and the rest, dangerous, coldblooded, torpedoes who have a collective zero conscience. Is anybody out there dumb enough to think the charter lie folks, headed by Scotty and Kenny are REALLY worried about money and resources???????
Submitted by Terrilyn McCormick (not verified) on February 20, 2014 10:11 am
Thank you Dr. Lytle for this piece. I'm a parent of kids at two Philly public schools and a seasoned management consultant. I estimate I've spent over 60 hours reviewing the district's current and past budget information for both my children's schools - Penn Alexander and CAPA. I've also tried to benchmark their funding against similar schools in terms of performance and poverty rates and then also compare them against schools with poor performance and higher poverty rates. It's been an exercise in futility. I've no confidence in the numbers and they often do not add up to the same totals between the different budget views available on SDP's site. Even if I could make sense of the numbers, the reality I've learned as the chair of a SAC at one school and HSA president at the other is that there is so little to no discretion in spending at the schools especially since the year's budget cuts. (Example CAPA may have opted to put their sports budget toward art programing but not an option SDP allowed) Principals have very little flexibility in spending and parents who want to have input are only able to impact very small dollar amounts unless they are willing to fundraise the money themselves. (Example on tonight's SRC budget where Masterman parents raised money to fund a part-time secretary). Budgets equal priorities and unfortunately SDP's process to date doesn't allow for even the voicing of priorities of each school community. I'll be at the SRC tonight speaking on this very issue.
Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on February 20, 2014 10:24 am
It is time to say it. "Torch" is out of touch. The flame is out. I have heard enough pie in the sky, ivory tower platitudes. These children are not lab rats to be experimented with for the benefit of so-called intelligentsia. The scourge of unfettered greed has infected Penn and many if not all of other institutions of higher learning.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2014 1:19 pm
It certainly doesn't look like you know anything about "Torch" Lytle. And you obviously didn't read this piece very carefully. Pie in the sky? More like here's what it really looks like on the ground. Have you been a principal or a teacher? Though indeed, I would also characterize Penn as unfettered greed, but that's not what this is.
Submitted by Dave M. (not verified) on February 20, 2014 11:45 am
Here's a question: How much is the District WASTING on the Common Core and the supplementary testing?
Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on February 20, 2014 1:03 pm
I know way more than I would air publicly going back to the the early 1980's...I can tell you for sure that I have been both a teacher and principal far more recently than Lytle. He needs to retire from public comment on something he is not directly currently practicing. THe Baby Boomers need to get out of the way. Their arrogance and thirst for power is destroying our society.

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