Is any­one in charge at Al­len­town School Dis­trict?

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - Morn­ing Call colum­nist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 or [email protected]

It’s get­ting harder and harder to have faith in the lead­er­ship of the Al­len­town School Dis­trict. The dis­trict showed its des­per­a­tion about six weeks ago by bal­anc­ing its bud­get with the as­sump­tion that char­ter schools would vol­un­tar­ily ac­cept less than they are owed if the dis­trict pleaded for mercy.

That was the longest of long shots, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing dis­trict of­fi­cials didn’t even have the cour­tesy to in­form char­ter of­fi­cials of their plan in ad­vance, leav­ing them to learn about it through the me­dia.

You’d think dis­trict ad­min­is­tra­tors would have been on the phone the next day ar­rang­ing to visit the char­ters to pitch their plan.

But that didn’t hap­pen. For the en­tire month of July.

It’s al­most like they for­got about it. Al­len­town ad­min­is­tra­tors didn’t for­mally make the re­quest un­til last week. That’s a de­lay of roughly 40 days. And when of­fi­cials fi­nally made their pitch, it was done by email and mail.

How could any char­ter school take such a tardy and im­per­sonal re­quest se­ri­ously? Not only are Al­len­town school of­fi­cials overly wish­ful, they’re lazy.

It seems the bu­reau­crats would have waited even longer to ask if they had more time. The dis­trict had to sub­mit its fi­nal bud­get to the state last week, so it had to fi­nally ask the char­ters to forgo a combined $6 mil­lion — 10% less than

they are due — so it could write that amount off in its bud­get.

Su­per­in­ten­dent Thomas Parker told me Mon­day the char­ter schools re­ceived an email and per­sonal let­ter from school board Pres­i­dent Au­drey Mathi­son “invit­ing them to make contact with the dis­trict and dis­cuss plans. That may hap­pen in­di­vid­u­ally or col­lec­tively.”

He said the time­line doesn’t pre­clude that from hap­pen­ing.

“The char­ter schools still have time to com­mu­ni­cate with the dis­trict and agree to work with us on the fis­cal con­cerns,” he said.

As much as I’d like to see Al­len­town schools turn the cor­ner, I hope the char­ters re­ject the re­quest.

I’m not a fan of char­ter schools. I’ve made that clear in the past. But the way they were treated by the dis­trict on this crit­i­cal re­quest showed a lack of re­spect.

I want the Al­len­town School Dis­trict to suc­ceed. I re­ally do. But there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence that things will change. This is just the lat­est in a string of dis­ap­point­ing actions and de­ci­sions.

In Jan­uary, the school board ap­proved hir­ing a $100,000-a-year com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor. As I said at the time, that’s a lot of money for a dis­trict that re­lied on a $10 mil­lion state bailout to bal­ance its bud­get the pre­vi­ous year. Es­pe­cially with the dis­trict al­ready hav­ing a $67,000-a-year com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager.

With such a ro­bust staff, I should point out, there should have been no short­age of man­power to com­mu­ni­cate with char­ter schools about the pay­ment re­duc­tion re­quest.

Not long af­ter that came news that the dis­trict dug it­self a fi­nan­cial hole by “un­der­bud­get­ing” for salaries. That should be im­pos­si­ble to do. The dis­trict knows how many em­ploy­ees it has and it knows how much they earn. It just flunked when it did the math.

In May, it plugged the hole by bor­row­ing $10 mil­lion. That will cost $14 mil­lion to re­pay, which only digs the hole deeper.

Then, still un­able to bal­ance its bud­get for the 2019-20 fis­cal year, it banked on the gen­eros­ity of the char­ter schools.

So what hap­pens if the char­ters re­ject the re­quest, as one al­ready has told The Morn­ing Call it will? I hope the state takes a long look at the bud­get it re­ceived and no­tices that it’s not truly the fi­nal bud­get it’s supposed to be.

It should be enough to put the dis­trict on “watch sta­tus,” the first step in de­ter­min­ing whether the state should take the reigns in an at­tempt to turn the dis­trict around.

KRIS­TEN HARRISON/THE MORN­ING CALL

The Al­len­town School Dis­trict wants char­ter schools to ac­cept lower pay­ments so the dis­trict can bal­ance its bud­get. But it didn’t bother to ask them un­til the last minute.

Paul Muschick

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