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Stonewalled?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Today, May 27, is the day the District has its scheduled vote to approve its $3.2 billion unified budget.

Usually, by the time of the SRC’s budget vote at the end of May, I feel that I’ve had a chance to ask finance officials about items that jump out at me as requiring explanation and that I get clarifications of these changes to the budget.

Not this year.

We at the Notebook did get a few opportunities to question Chief Business Officer Michael Masch and we have been provided with reams of documents. But there’s a breakdown when it comes to getting answers to questions along the lines of "Why is this line item $9 million and not $5 million?"

I’ve been pleading with District staff for answers on several questions like that since the City Council budget hearings two weeks ago. Mostly these are questions about big numbers in different documents that don’t appear to line up with one another.

After asking so many times and not getting an answer, one has to think the lack of response is by design.

Here are a few of the Notebook‘s big unanswered questions:

  • Imagine 2014 promises a $4.9 million increase to pay for at least another 500 slots in early childhood programs. but the District’s $95.4 million early childhood budget stays essentially flat next year … so how are they paying for these programs?
  • The District’s information technology and finance offices are each getting a hefty $9 million budget increase next year. For each office, that increase is partially justified by a $5 million expenditure item for new data systems. We’re waiting to know how the other $4 million will be used for each of those offices.
  • Non-personnel services for special education get a $6.6 million boost (a 17 percent increase), but we have not heard what this money is to be spent on.

It’s rarely the case that we have so many multimillion dollar increases in budget lines. All the more reason to make sure this year we understand each of them.

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