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Agreement with city, state: A big deal?

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

For Thursday’s press conference and ceremonial signing in City Hall of a new deal between the School District, the city, and the state education department, Mayor Nutter had a row of officials on either side of him that was so long he didn’t mention everyone by name.

Most of City Council was there as well as some state legislators, top District officials, and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis – all upbeat about the significance of the announcement.

"This agreement represents a new beginning, a new way of working together," said Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

"I could not be more pleased with the level of cooperation among a variety of parties in a relatively short period of time," Mayor Nutter said.

But with the new Educational Accountability Memorandum of Understanding in place and the District committed to sharing more information, its prospects of getting more state and local funding this year are still no more clear than before.

Nobody was pledging dollars. Speaking to the situation at the state level, Tomalis said, "We have a very steep hurdle ahead of us in our budget."

So if the agreement doesn’t guarantee any new money, then what’s the big deal?

For those of us who try to get information out of the School District, the new pact might actually be a big deal, opening new channels for monitoring fiscal responsibility. The District pledged to share with the city and state by June 15 a long list of documents related to finances, staffing, program performance, and future plans, many of which have been hard to come by.

And according to mayoral spokesperson Mark McDonald, any information released to the city under this agreement will be considered public information and made available to the rest of us.

The agreement includes items that have been difficult to get from the District. Among them:

  • "All documents and studies related to the facilities master plan," including the proposed school closure list that the District had said it won’t release until October.
  • "A list of all service providers with official name, contract amount, length of contract."
  • "A list of all personnel working at 440 North Broad Street or other buildings used for administrative, non-teaching purposes."
  • "A list of all non-union, non-instructional employees whose compensation is $90,000 or above."

The agreement has already produced two District documents that provide new information on the current budget situation.

One provides greater detail on the District’s use of federal Title I dollars than has previously been available and reveals for the first time where the cuts were made to come up with $21 million in funds to restore full-day kindergarten. Millions of dollars came out of areas including supplemental educational services, Empowerment Schools, benchmark testing, and professional development.

The other document released is a chart that lays out a number of scenarios under which the District might get more money. For each the District specifies how it would use the additional dollars.

For instance, if the city delivers a 3.5 percent property tax increase plus a parking rate increase and cuts a deal with SEPTA for TransPasses, and if Pennsylvania reinstates accountability block grants but not charter school funding, the gain will be $30 million. In that case, the only cut the District will be able to restore will be yellow bus service. The rest of its long wish list of cuts it would like to restore will be lost in this scenario.

With more documents to come next week, today’s agreement does appear to represent a breakthrough for advocates of greater transparency.

But as to whether this will shake loose more city and state money for the schools, even Mayor Nutter was not making predictions. "Hope springs eternal," he said. "But this is an accountability agreement, so let’s be clear about what it is and what it’s not. We still have to make a case, all of us collectively."

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