How bad is it?

I was thinking about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs this morning while reading about the latest set of of dire budget projections for the school district of Philadelphia. This on the heels of Tuesday’s SRC meeting to discuss the continuing problem of school violence.

Resources, safety, and security. For all of the hard work put in by teachers, principals, district staff, volunteers and community partners over the years, the system is still struggling to meet its most basic needs. There are many reasons for this, and no simple answers. But one thing is clear: if the district is ever going to get out of the resource, safety and security hole in which it finds itself, it first needs to stop digging. That begins with a commitment to transparency and a clear-eyed, honest look at where we are.

From what I understand (and as an outsider there are critical things that I don’t), the district’s consistent underestimation of the depth and seriousness of the financial crisis in recent years arises at least as much from uncertainty as from any impulse to sugar coat bad news. In the short term that uncertainty is likely to continue. If that’s the case, the prudent course at this time is to assume the worst: overestimate increases in charter enrollment, assume continued declines in local and state revenue, etc. Be pessimistic about all revenue and expense projections. Take every precaution to ensure that if you’re wrong, the mistake improves the picture rather than worsening it.

On climate and safety, we have written before on this blog about the mixed messages schools receive in this area. Unless the SRC is going to create a completely independent organization charged with auditing school climate (a massive undertaking that would require far more resources than are currently available), getting a clear picture of school safety requires transparency from school-level staff. That won’t happen if they know they’ll be fired for being honest. Everyone knows violence and safety are real concerns in our schools. The district will not solve this problem if teachers, counselors, school safety officers and principals are not on board. But as long as the emphasis is on assigning blame, people will focus on protecting themselves.

While it’s still early, the newly reconstituted SRC has shown a commendable focus on improving transparency. If we are to ever get past our most basic needs and thus really focus on teaching and learning, it will have to push that commitment even farther. The news will probably be very, very bad. But until we know just how bad, it’s impossible to make good decisions about what to do next.