This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Normally I would laud next week’s public hearings to weigh in on the District’s plans to close a near $200 million shortfall. After all, the District reversed its earlier opposition to the idea and gave plenty of notice ahead of time.
But here’s the catch: what use are hearings when there’s so little substantive information?
Yes, there’s loads of documents you can scroll through on the web, like this 59-page PowerPoint. I’ll argue however that of those 59 pages, less than half a dozen address what specifically the District intends to do.
In fact, I really only found three pages (p. 35, and p. 55-56) that referenced specific spending reduction areas, and even those were short on detail. For example, on p. 35, the District says it will claim $9.9 million through reductions in non-instructional budgets. What does that mean exactly for schools?
The District’s plans also appear to be changing month to month, often without any public notice of the changes.
Investment in reducing class size, for instance, has been cut by a third since the spring. Last month the District said that instead of significantly boosting the number of school climate and safety personnel, it was adding less than a handful of school police officers. A week later, news broke that the District was actually going to save more money by rotating per diem school officers – something not mentioned in the budget hearings. One principal with a per diem said he was deeply concerned about such a move since it could result in rotating security which was unfamiliar with the school and its students. The District backed off its decision after the news broke.
Similarly, information has been inconsistent at best regarding the District’s plan to force schools to return discretionary funds.
Not a single principal I’ve spoken to has received notice from downtown about funds being reclaimed from schools, despite the fact that Chief Budget Officer Mike Masch twice claimed that the District would reclaim $4 million from schools. I was delighted to read in the Notebook that that number has apparently been reduced to $1.2 million. But as of this morning, principals I heard from said they haven’t heard a word from downtown about how much cash is being asked from schools or even whether that’s still up for consideration.
Unlike well advertised meetings that go through the parent networks, little has been mentioned about the budget hearings scheduled for the 9th, 16th and 18th. You can find a notice once you click on the “09-10 Budget Update” button on the District website, but I would hardly call that prominent. Is it any surprise that there was no mention of it at last night’s Home and School Council meeting either?
I’m not sure if this is exactly what the District intended, but what started out as a good faith effort by the District isn’t doing enough to address public concerns about transparency, process, and true public engagement and dialogue.