While it’s a demand that has been repeated for decades in Philadelphia and communities across the country, we shouldn’t shelve it as more of the same. We are in a dire situation. This is a moment and if we don’t act boldly now, all of the children we serve pay the consequences of adult failures. That’s just wrong.
It is the only reason why I, and other SRC members, are at the table today; it’s the reason why our system’s best principals and teachers show up and give it their best every day; and it’s why a growing number of parents fill the room at our SRC meetings to listen and speak. We are all committed to finding solutions that give children their right to a quality education in a secure environment, and within our means.
The School District is facing an unprecedented budget gap of $218 million in fiscal 2013 (or more, if the estimated $94 million from the city’s Actual Value Initiative for property taxes is not realized). Even more shameful, if we don’t make a correction soon, by 2017 public schools will collapse under a $1.1 billion cumulative deficit. Years of one-time or partial fixes have taken their toll. So we must truly transform the system. Not just by cutting budgets, but by changing in fundamental ways how we operate.
At our SRC meeting Tuesday, we will be holding a hearing that addresses the 2013 budget, along with a five-year financial plan and a transformation proposal introduced by our chief recovery officer, Tom Knudsen, and chief academic officer, Penny Nixon. The proposal is centered on two clear goals: provide safe, high-quality public schools throughout the city, and bring the budget back into balance. These goals are simple in concept, but they are neither simple nor quick in execution.
Transforming the system to the right size, finding a larger pool of talented principals and teachers who are driven by excellence, and achieving a balanced budget with a system that is financially sustainable will take time. We won’t have all of the resources everyone needs or wants, and we don’t have all of the answers yet.
But we do have a vision for a system where schools are king; where good schools come in many different packages; where bureaucracy gets out of the way, replaced by an informed, responsive, and accountable organization that supports and enables innovation and achievement by educators and students.
This vision is attainable, but we cannot do it without partners who are committed to real long-term change — not change for change’s sake, but change for a purpose. The SRC knows that building trust and confidence through good communication and interaction is key to making these partnerships work, so we’re taking important steps. Concerned citizens and professionals are volunteering their time to serve on working groups and have brought forward valuable ideas that have already provided many solutions to hard-to-solve problems.
SRC Commissioner Lorene Cary has created and is managing a Safety and Engagement Committee in order to implement recommendations made by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Safe Schools.
Partners, like the William Penn Foundation, have committed to providing financial support and involvement on oversight committees connected to the transformation plan and recovery process.
And most importantly, the parents, students, principals, teachers, and community members who show up week after week, month after month, to challenge us, support us, and guide us, also serve as a constant barometer to let us know if we are on the right track.
Six public briefings have been scheduled in various parts of the city to provide a forum for citizens to ask questions and share opinions about the budget and transformation draft plan. We will listen and try our best to respond to input and ideas. While it’s not realistic to expect that all suggestions will be seen in the final transformation plan, we will be honest and straightforward about the decisions that are made.
In the end, the SRC must make decisions that are fiscally responsible and find solutions that finally move us toward the big goal of giving all children their right to a high-quality education in a safe environment. We will act with urgency, but also with courage and patience to see it through.
For information on public forums, visit http://webgui.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/t/transforming-philadelphias-public-schools.