Their View: Schools’ shopping list needs to wait on budget

The following editorial appeared in The (Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader.

If you picked the Powerball jackpot’s winning numbers, how would you spend your newfound fortune?

A letter from the state’s acting education secretary basically invites Pennsylvania’s public school superintendents to engage in such fantasizing, a politically motivated exercise that seems destined to waste their time and further divide state lawmakers.

Only a week ago, top Senate Republicans cautioned the superintendents to not expect a full $400 million increase in direct support to their districts — money that Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget would make available. Nevertheless, state education chief Pedro Rivera has drafted a letter urging districts to explain how they’ll spend the additional money on student learning and respond with a plan by mid-May. (Remember, Pennsylvania’s budget rarely gets passed until late June.)

School superintendents already have plenty of paperwork to do, much of it mandated by Harrisburg; why ask them to speculate on what so far amounts to pretend money?

Rivera rejected the notion that his letter serves as a political ploy. “It’s meant to be practical,” he told a reporter for PennLive.com, “and set a time line to think about what programs could be instituted with the new funding.”

To outsiders like us, however, it appears the districts’ top officials are being used to draw up a defense for the governor’s education spending priorities.

That’s not to imply Wolf’s desire to dedicate more funding for learning, and raise student achievement, is off-target. But he and his administration should build their case without compelling superintendents to serve as de facto lobbyists.

For starters, convince the public that the tax money already targeted for schools is spent wisely, not squandered.

If you venture to the basement of Philadelphia’s school district headquarters, you’ll find never-opened books and supplies that didn’t reach students’ hands, according to Mike Newall, metro columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. “There are thousands more unused books — and other things city kids badly need, including pianos and other instruments — piled up in the hallways and classrooms of the shuttered Bok High School in South Philadelphia,” he wrote this week.

Ironically, those materials were intended for two dozen schools that the district closed about two years ago for budget reasons.

Closer to home, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District began shopping last year for scaffolding, even though it had only a few years earlier rented, then purchased and forgotten about $18,000-worth of scaffolding. Much of the metalwork reportedly disappeared from the district’s unsecured storage site.

If Pennsylvania ultimately aims to deliver more education money to the place it’s most needed, the classroom, let’s be smart about it.