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Everybody’s children; Other people’s money

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

In the 2011 school year and going forward, the probability that a major financial shortfall will cripple the operations of the School District of Philadelphia is increasingly becoming a certainty.

Circumstances beyond the control of the District’s money managers will soon significantly reduce the operational income needed to fund essential instructional programs.

In order to balance a much-diminished budget, it is likely that services will be slashed. These cuts will be deep. It may be necessary to increase class sizes, reduce staff, and close schools in order to cope with the impact of this impending crisis.

This possibility comes as no surprise.

Our city, state, and nation has been struggling for the last two years to mitigate the negative effects on our society of the greatest economic downturn that this country has faced since the Great Depression. The temporary federal stimulus funds that our District has received in order to help get through these hard times will have reached their pre-ordained termination date at the end of this year.

In our District, these bridge funds have been used to expand rather than protect existing District programs. Now we face the unpleasant prospect of retreating from the recent gains in services our District has made. Worst yet is the possibility that we may lose the ground that we held before the implementation of Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 plan.

Our District leaders could have done a better job of effectively managing the resources that were available during the last two years. This was within their control. Stimulus money should have been used to fund projects that would not have had recurring costs or to supplement pre-existing personnel costs until local and state revenues improved.

Instead the Ackerman administration took a gamble. They used the federal rescue funds to either expand on existing essential services such as school counselors, social workers, teachers, and supports to parents or to add new services such as Promise Academies. Though the intentions of these actions were admirable, they were not supported by a sustainable funding source. Once it became clear that future revenues would not sustain these efforts, revisions should have been made. But they weren’t.

During this past summer the District had an opportunity to save money by downsizing the size of its summer program. The cost of this activity was $42 million. Despite the initial assertion of district officials that 58,511 students benefited from this service, data that the Notebook received from the District contradicted this statement.

This is but one of several examples of how our District leaders have failed to exercise fiscal prudence in recent years. The costly introduction of a new reading series into the Empowerment Schools this September and the addition of a number of high salaried positions to the central leadership team in recent months are two more examples. Using temporary funding sources to pay for these items is less than wise and seems to suggest that Ackerman’s team is oblivious to financial reality and responsibility.

Recently the Inquirer reported that Ackerman intends to expend $234,000 in order to contract the services of a political lobbying firm. The objective of this lobbying firm will be to argue the case to state legislatures for the maintenance and/or increase of funding levels for the District. In order to justify this position, one would surely expect a lobbyist to demonstrate that the funds the District currently receives are being prudently spent.

Hiring a lobbyist during a time of frivolous over expenditures and shrinking federal dollars will hardly communicate such fiscal soundness. Perhaps a more effective method to demonstrate the foresight of the District’s financial stewards is for them to construct a realistic budget. It is time for them to show that they are cognizant of their responsibility to the citizens and taxpayers of Pennsylvania.

As a teacher and a principal, I cared for and taught all of my students as though they were my own children. I was also aware of the fact that other people’s money made it possible for me to do so.

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