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In hard times, how should the School District spend its money?

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

The recent financial bounty we have enjoyed in the School District of Philadelphia is coming to an end.

A decrease in state revenues, the end of federal stimulus funds, and a newly elected governor who has pledged not to raise taxes all suggest that the District will soon face a bleak financial future.

Add to this the fact the education transition team chosen by the governor-elect includes many charter school and voucher advocates. It is conceivable that they will recommend diversion of public school money to fund more school choice options.

There is no doubt that more difficult choices and hard decisions are just ahead for the leaders of the School District of Philadelphia. This is not the future that Michael Masch, the chief financial officer for the District, planned for when he presided over the creation of the annual budget for the 2009-10 school year.

Masch’s budget was designed to fund the reform strategies that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had proposed for the next five years in her Imagine 2014 plan. Forty-four initiatives from the 2014 blueprint were selected for funding in the 2009 school year. Masch stated at that time that the cost for these 44 items would be approximately 25 percent of the five-year cost for the 2014 plan. He estimated that District revenues would have to grow $700 million by 2014 in order to pay for the total cost of all of Ackerman’s reform proposals.

The likelihood of acquiring this needed revenue was contingent on our elected officials’ willingness to increase the funding that the state provides to local school districts. In 2008, the Pennsylvania legislature did adopt a new school funding formula that would in six years’ time increase by $600 million the annual funding which the School District of Philadelphia would receive. In 2009, the District expected a lump sum budget increase of $300 million. In anticipation of this funding and in accordance to Ackerman’s belief that money shouldn’t be an issue, the District began to implement the 2014 plan.

The projected first year costs were:

  • $32.5 million to reduce the size of K-3 classes in Empowerment Schools,
  • $18.5 million to hire additional counselors,
  • $16.8 million to create more flexible high school schedules,
  • $4.9 million to add 500 Head Start program slots,
  • $12 million to provide a four-week summer program, and
  • $2.4 million to start up of the Renaissance Schools initiative.

In the actual District budgets for 2009-10 and 2010-11, these activities were funded. However, the final costs of some of the initiatives turned out to be greater than what was projected. The 2009 summer school program for example, cost $21 million; in 2010, it rose to $42 million. In the six Promise Academies alone this year, the District is spending $7.2 million, though charter Renaissance Schools have cost less than anticipated.

The District has experienced an unprecedented increase in revenue during the last two years. As result, the resources available for our students have been enhanced. Now that progress is likely to stall and conceivably regress. With the anticipated loss of $250 million in stimulus funds next spring there is no doubt that the District will have to reconsider its priorities with regard to how its remaining funds are spent.

So how should we reallocate the resources that will remain, as our district, state, and nation continue to cope with the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression?

Ackerman and her team have already started to make clear what they want to preserve in future District budgets. They have identified the District’s summer school program as a “must have” priority. Members of the SRC have offered their support for this budget line item.

The summer program has provided its attending students with 16 days of instruction and five days of testing for each of the two summers that it has been operational. How many children this program has served and what effect it has had on their overall academic progress is unclear from the information provided by District officials.

If the District again asks for $42 million for summer program in 2011, its costs would cover the cost of funding class size reduction in all of the District’s grades K-3 and half the cost of the additional counselors that have been hired for our middle and high schools.

If you had to choose between continuing a summer school program and reducing class size during the regular school year, which would you select? As we head into what will undeniably be a difficult budget year, how well will the voices of parents, students, and teachers be heard in determining district funding priorities? Just recently a guest blogger parent voiced concern regarding the future funding of the District’s instrumental music programs. What concerns do you have?

What items should the School Reform Commission maintain in the 2011 budget? What would you suggest?