Schools Get Money; Now What?

THE HARD PART: WHO RUNS THE PLACE?

Posted: September 14, 2007

WHAT DOES the school district need?

On the face of it, that may be the simplest question in the world.

But after you answer with the obvious- money - it's not such a simple question.

That fact was brought home earlier this week at a news conference at which Gov. Rendell and Mayor Street announced an influx of state and city money to help plug the district's $200 million budget deficit. The city is contributing $42 million, to come from more aggressive tax-delinquent collections. With the state's contribution, the schools get $150 million.

But later, when Gov. Rendell floated the possibility of State Budget Director Mike Masch taking on the role of managing director of the schools, the forecast was not so clear.

Masch is highly regarded for his intelligence; in fact, he proved his intelligence by admitting that he wasn't qualified for the job of school district CEO. The governor wasn't sure whether he would appoint Masch to the managing director job, what that job might entail or how it would work.

It's certainly clear that the district needs a highly placed person with financial discipline and background. In the last 12 months, the story of the school district has become the story of a surprising deficit, the abrupt departure of the superintendent and soon after, the head of the School Reform Commission. Was that a story of the SRC letting Paul Vallas get away with crashing the budget? Or was it a story of overspending to make the point that getting academic results takes lots of money?

The district must operate within a tense dynamic of academic priorities duking it out with fiscal discipline. At best, that's a balance that must be finely calibrated. That's the SRC's job. It's the job it failed to do when it let the budget deficit grow.

Before anyone rewrites the management structure for the district, it's important to acknowledge that. For example, one scenario had a managing-director position reporting to the SRC, rather than the as-yet-unnamed school chief. That seems to pave a road to more chaos and confusion.

The most important job in the district should be that of the CEO, who sets the academic priorities, and is accountable for the progress of its students. There are probably few people as qualified as Masch to provide fiscal oversight. The city and the district will be lucky if he gets to play that role. But the immediate priority should be finding the strongest possible permanent CEO.

We needed that leader, like, yesterday. *

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