A historic dud on schools

    Last Sunday, an angry Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter put his foot down and demanded that the School District come clean on its spending and other financial data. He wants lists of employees and their benefits, bonuses and expenses; contracts with lawyers, consultants and everybody else; and permission to effectively demand any information and rifle the files of the district any time, without anybody’s prior approval. He insisted that the District begin preparing five year financial plans every year.

    And just like that, school officials caved. Standing in the mayor’s reception room Thursday afternoon, they signed an Educational Accountability Agreement giving the mayor everything he asked for. You can read the agreement here.

    For good measure the State Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis was on hand, since the agreement was written to give state officials the same information the city insisted on.

    The agreement was praised as historic, and, in a way it is.

    If it’s truly followed, the district will be required to prepare a five-year financial plan every year, something I suggested in a post earlier this week.

    The city is now in the position to know far more about the district’s operations and finances than it has in the past. And information is power, if it’s exercised. I wonder whether the city will build a staff with the time and expertise to really plumb the depths of the district’s operations.

    For the moment, though, the district is still in very deep sewage, and all the talk about a “new partnership,” produced not a nickel towards plugging the schools’ $629 million funding gap.

    I listened twice to State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis’ two-minute speech, and I still can’t tell you a single thing he said. He certainly didn’t address the $57 million in charter school funding the district urgently needs restored and Mayor Nutter says is a priority.

    I went to Tomalis after the press conference and asked him if he and the governor support the restoration of that money. I won’t bore you with the whole exchange, but his answers amounted to “no,” without actually uttering the words.

    Ten Council members stood with Nutter for the announcement (the mayor likes a show of unity for things like these), but there was little evidence in conversations with them that there’s support for either the property or soda taxes the mayor is suggesting.

    Council members were pleased that School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman actually sat down with them yesterday and began explaining in detail what specific educational programs cost.

    But it’s hard to see anybody mustering the nine votes needed to get a tax increase through Council. Council has until next Thursday to figure out what if anything they’re going to do.

    It’s nice everyone is talking now, but given the financial pressures and budget deadlines, this talk isn’t cheap.

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