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With this budget, a whole lot of explaining is needed

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

I’m just back from one of the District’s community budget meetings Saturday morning at Northeast HS, which included a lively Q & A about funding and spending issues with more than 25 people participating. It was great to see at least two simultaneous translators at work during the meeting with immigrant parents in the audience.

While more explanation is still needed, the District and Chief Budget Officer Mike Masch’s team are to be commended for their efforts to make the budget more accessible this year. Besides the busy schedule of meetings and hearings, they have produced an extensive slide presentation and a "budget in brief" document to explain what’s in the fat "budget book," all of which are online. These documents also for the first time I can recall give us a bit of clarity about the hundreds of millions of dollars in spending from the previously obscure grant funds that the District receives.

They need to be both very clear with and very responsive to the community about where all the money is going if they expect the public to support them in a pending budget battle in Harrisburg.

The challenge is that with so much new money ($314 million) anticipated from the state and from federal stimulus dollars, there is truly a whole lot of explaining that needs to happen this year.

At budget time last year, the District was announcing a grand total of two new initiatives – lowering class size in some schools and hiring more art and music teachers. This year, they’re describing 48 initiatives that are part of Phase I of the strategic plan, and many more budgeted increases that don’t seem to be directly linked to the plan. As someone who’s been studying these documents, I’ve been struggling to understand where all the new money is going so we can write about it for our readers.

What’s finally become clear to me from the presentations and interviews I’ve done over the last two days is how much of the new money is not really discretionary.

Page 55 of the slide presentation makes some of that clear in the process of accounting in very brief terms for $300 million of the $314 million in new spending. More than 1/3 of that sum ($118 million) is gone once you add up obligations to increases in salary, benefits, temporary borrowing, debt service, charter school growth, non-public schools, and utilties.

That suggests big trouble if Senate Republicans succeed in their efforts to freeze state spending on education. One District staffer today described that scenario as "the end of the world."

But if the hoped-for funds do come throught, what does appear to be discretionary is still substantial: the $126 million for Phase I of Imagine 2014, as well as a number of proposed one-time expenditures that are in line with recommendations for the use of the stimulus: for educational technology, data systems for HR, finance, facilities, and records management.

For a future post, I’d like to hear more from all of you about what demands are emerging from the community about how to use the discretionary funds.

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