The seattle Public Schools' finances always seem to be a high-wire act. The district faces a projected $12. 2 million deficit next year and a $20 million budget gap the following...

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The Seattle Public Schools’ finances always seem to be a high-wire act. The district faces a projected $12.2 million deficit next year and a $20 million budget gap the following year. The two biggest costs are its new teachers union contract and a massive, five-year school-improvement plan.

The district’s finance director, Steve Nielsen, warns of bankruptcy.

Action more effective and systemic than budget cuts is needed here. Seattle Schools should move to change its free-spending culture. It must become more efficient and focused.

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The district has long been managed with a style of acquiescence and accommodations for everyone. This scattered approach means programs and initiatives were created impulsively and without a long-term plan to sustain them. One of the district’s primary bragging points — its staggering array of academic options — has become its financial Achilles’ heel.

Even with so many efforts in place to bolster academic achievement, the School Board is set to approve spending $100 million on more improvements. Isn’t this how former Superintendent Joseph Olchefske overspent his budget by $34 million?

Current Superintendent Raj Manhas understands the scope of the district’s problems, but appears unable to exercise leadership in the midst of a contentious board and demanding parents.

A leadership vacuum now exists in the district and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is stepping into it.

The mayor proposes an education summit similar to former Mayor Norm Rice’s summit of 14 years ago. That gathering of parents, community and business leaders ushered in a new partnership between the city and the schools and also launched the Families and Education Levy.

It makes sense. A vibrant school system is critical to the city’s own vitality.

Nickels can help rally the city around the schools but should take care not to undercut Manhas and the School Board. Ultimately, they are responsible for the district’s health and well-being.

The Alliance for Education — the district’s fund-raising arm — has been quiet amidst school officials’ warnings of impending doom. This says significant things about the Alliance, not all of them good. This entity’s raison d’être, in part, has been to help the district afford the costs of high academic achievement.

There is much to discuss about the direction of the Seattle Schools. A summit is a welcomed launching pad for the conversation.