September 17 — 10:54 am, 2009

Back to the drawing board: huge deficit means it’s time to re-engage the public, re-establish priorities

And so we’re here again.

One week into school and we’re facing an almost certain $150 million budget deficit and counting. I say “we” because $150 million is not a number accountants and creative bookkeeping can make disappear. It’s a number that’s likely to touch every school, and possibly be felt in every classroom in the city.

It’s a situation the School District ignored as it signed off on millions of dollars in contracts for the past five months – despite appeals that contracts should be prioritized or even held off until the state budget came through. It’s a situation the School District steadfastly refused to acknowledge even when the governor’s budget was clearly dead in the water. It’s a situation that the School District’s only apparent preparation for was a “doomsday budget” in the event of a worst-case scenario.

But it looks like something very close to a worst case scenario is at hand.

The doomsday budget listed 30+ cuts totaling $300 million and included the following:

  • An increase in class sizes to 33 kids in grades K-3 and 35 kids in grades 4-12;

  • No charter reimbursements for 300 charter school teachers and 7,800 charter school students citywide;

  • Elimination of more than 130 nurses and counselors districtwide;

  • Elimination of summer school and pre-K programs;

  • Elimination of 800 sports teams for kids;

  • One less police officer in the 33 comprehensive high schools;

  • Removal of dozens of kids from getting SEPTA transpasses and partially basing passes on attendance records.

This list, when released last spring, was meant to frighten and intimidate state legislators. At the time, Parents United for Public Education asked that the “doomsday budget” be taken off the table since every single cut came off the backs of children, teachers, and schools.

Now with the District’s budget assumptions unraveling, the list is a major threat to fundamental educational principles. The District has already enacted one of its threats from this list – fewer high school dropouts than planned can return to alternative schools for a diploma.

So the question before us is where do we go from here?

It’s worth remembering that three years ago, when then-CEO Paul Vallas first announced a stunning deficit, the number came to $73 million – less than half of the anticipated shortfall today.

One thing we witnessed in the 2006 financial crisis was an effort to move quickly so cuts and savings could be made early enough in the school year to have an impact. But even today, in the 11th hour, District officials are avoiding cknowledging serious problems.

Michael Masch, the district’s chief business officer, said last night that he would not characterize the moves as cuts. He said the district was merely waiting to see what it would receive in state aid. 

Meanwhile, the SRC has chosen to postpone its September meetings by two weeks despite the looming financial crisis.

Another feature three years ago was the willingness of District leadership to bring in broad parties to help figure out solutions, and that included parent and community groups. In fact, Parents United for Public Education, which I helped co-found, had its creation in the roots of the 2006 fiasco – the result of parent frustrations of years of declining funds in schools.

More than ever, the District needs to return to those principles of public engagement, transparency, and a focus on schools rather than contracts and consultants. Outgoing Commissioner Heidi Ramirez got the District to commit last May that if there were to be any significant changes in the budget that it would have to bring a revised plan to the SRC for approval.

We need to take that several steps step further and include the following as well:

  1. The District must take the “doomsday budget” off the table and make a commitment to a public process for determining budget cuts;

  2. The District must define essential school services and commit to ensuring that these will be off limits for budget cuts;

  3. The District must freeze its contracting activity and account fully for its current contracts, however small, as it did in 2006;

  4. The District must hold at least three public budget meetings – including one evening meeting – before approving a revised budget;

  5. The District must commit to holding community budget forums this fall so that the District can hear financing priorities from schools before budgets are created, not afterward.

The District made a major error in counting on politics to win the day and blithely issuing contracts and hiring consultants. Now that a hammer is coming down on school finances, it’s time to protect our schools and children from the worst of consequences of this latest budget crisis.

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