School District leadership announced in October that it had an unexpected $73 million budget shortfall. The announcement was followed immediately by the declaration that it’s not a big problem, everything is under control, and they’ll have a plan together in two weeks.

For years, parents have been turned off by this kind of “we know best” attitude from school officials. But this time, parents simply weren’t buying the line. It was painfully clear that the District did not “have it under control.” Among other signs, class sizes were growing and split classes were reappearing, reversing hard-fought gains made in the previous few years.

So parents rallied, lobbied, and fought to have a say. And we’re happy to report that the School Reform Commission and CEO Paul Vallas listened (and the mayor came and listened too).

  • The SRC allowed for four sessions of public hearings, including a rare evening session to allow working parents, teachers, and students to attend. Two of the sessions had capacity crowds.
  • After months of calling for greater fiscal accountability, parents got to see the SRC ask finance officials to publicly explain, step-by-step, where the deficit came from and what was proposed to resolve it.
  • District officials printed and distributed hundreds of copies of detailed budget documents and posted them on the School District’s website.
  • Commissioners and the CEO held several face-to-face meetings with parent activists about the budget.
  • The SRC deferred action on cuts that would most directly affect schools, at least initially moving forward only on reductions to administrative staff and contracts.

These are positive steps, but District leaders have had little choice but to be responsive. It is glaringly obvious that the crisis is, at least in part, the disastrous result of their cavalier attitudes about transparency and accountability.

But perhaps the budding parent activism will provide a turning point that helps both Vallas and the SRC see the value in changing the very way the District does business and committing to a more authentic partnership with parents. In that spirit, we’d like to suggest other ways that District leaders could show their commitment to a meaningful decision-making role for parents.

They could start by building more opportunities for public dialogue. The SRC’s plan for January hearings around the city as next year’s budget is being prepared is a good first step. We propose similar hearings in the spring on whether to renew expiring contracts with education management organizations. And meeting in the evening in the neighborhoods would be an important gesture in re-engaging with the community.

Budget documents should continue to be made as available and accessible as possible – put them online and in the schools. The SRC and Vallas should take Mayor Street’s suggestion and create an advisory board of stakeholders around budgetary matters. And commissioners should follow the spirit as well as the letter of the Sunshine Law, conducting deliberations in public as much as possible.

All these steps are vitally important. When it fails to engage with parents, the District misses an opportunity to bring parents and community together with city officials in a desperately needed united front to secure adequate school funding.

Amidst a crisis that suggests financial mismanagement, it may not be the best time to revisit the issue of how out-of-whack Pennsylvania’s school funding system remains. But whatever budget mistakes were made here, there is still a chronic shortfall in needed resources for Philadelphia schools that requires the state as well as the city to step up.

We cannot say enough times that the way schools are funded in this state is intolerable. Everyone in a position of leadership should be saying so too. The legislature has stalled Governor Rendell’s efforts to significantly increase the state’s share of local school costs. Pennsylvania still covers only around 37 percent, way behind the national average of 50 percent. Education in Pennsylvania is still funded mostly by property taxes, which are escalating, and the gulf between have and have-not districts is widening.

Perhaps the recently launched state effort to determine the cost of an adequate education will move us in the direction of equity, not to mention sanity, in how the Commonwealth funds its schools. But until then, critical goals like meaningful reductions in class size will be out of reach, and these budgetary crises will keep happening regardless of who is in charge.

The last few months may have shattered the illusion that Paul Vallas has it all figured out and should also make clear that the problems of the School District are too big for any CEO. The only way to try to alleviate the District’s perennial fiscal woes – not to mention truancy, low achievement and high dropout rates – is by constructing a powerful alliance that can mobilize grassroots communities. To do its part, the District needs to open its books and its decision-making and start engaging parents and communities in a real way.

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