Monopoly: Great Board Game, Lousy Politics

Philadelphians aren't getting a say in what we'd like to sacrifice for better schools

In this most Democratic of cities, people love the idea of a competitive political landscape while shunning it in reality. While there was a lot of interesting stuff happening in the recent Republican Party primary (a tight mayoral race, an interesting council-at-large fight and a possible shift in city commissioner), at the end of the day, little of that will matter. The Republican for mayor will get swamped, two Republican council-at-large candidates will get elected (they will have new names), and perhaps a new commissioner will result. Major impact on the Philadelphia political landscape? I think not.

Political Monopoly remains the order of the day in Philadelphia, and Boardwalk, Park Place and everything else belong to the Democrats. So does the School District of Philadelphia. So it is fascinating, a week after a hotly contested primary, to be reading about private School District-Council-Mayoral meetings (wouldn’t want too much sunshine let in), where $110 million funding proposals are being discussed.

I want to make certain I have this correct.

The School Reform Commission, that state agency created to oversee the District, collects hundreds of millions in new federal stimulus dollars and a like amount of state school aid increases. The SRC spends this money by expanding basic educational programming and implementing the Superintendent’s vision and agenda. The money is set to run out. Not the spending.

Throughout 2010, Pennsylvania had elections in which two messages were debated: controlling and reducing spending and holding the line against more taxes. Why? Because PA has an enormous budget deficit: $4.5 billion, or 13.8 percent of a $29 billion operation. Hello. Did anyone at the SRC hear about this? They suggest that they were blindsided by Harrisburg. So now they’re looking for relief from the City, which has its own fiscal stresses.

For months, word about the District’s deficit trickled out. The current number stands at $629 million, though I suspect there is some bloat in that number allowing for normal public scare tactics. But conversations about solutions were kept in the closet? Why? To avoid upsetting the electoral process underway. But isn’t the electoral process exactly the place where these issues should be debated?

Do we have the right approach to our basic needs in education? Are there things we should be investing in more extensively? Or less so? What will the City have to stop doing, reduce or forego to enable it to transfer millage or money to the District? Are we willing to give up those services? Are we ready to shift property tax millage from the City to the District and do we understand that such a shift is permanent? Would tax increases be considered? Which ones?

The Democratic leadership doesn’t think it is wise to open Pandora’s box to public opinion prior to an election. Had they done so, DROP might not have been the only policy issue to impact the outcome.

On the other hand, maybe it would have been up to the opposition party (or faction) to have raised public awareness about what they saw coming down the pike.

If only there was any real opposition. But over the decades, it has been smashed and decimated.

Which, come to think of it, is the whole point of monopoly.