Philadelphia School District to tap $25 million in reserves

Posted: April 14, 2011

Already facing a budget gap of more than half a billion dollars for 2011-12, Philadelphia School District officials said Wednesday that they must dip into reserves for $25 million just to balance this year's budget.

Chief financial officer Michael Masch gave the news at a School Reform Commission meeting where he also defended the district's past spending, which critics have said got it into the current fiscal fix.

The $629 million gap for next year will mean larger classes; cuts to art, music, and individual school budgets; and layoffs, officials have said.

The district accepted about $250 million in federal stimulus aid last year knowing the money would go away, Masch said. But the awarding of that funding coincided with the adoption of Imagine 2014, Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's strategic plan, and the district needed that cash to implement programs, he said.

Still, Masch said, the district knew it might have to roll back some initiatives.

"Nothing was put in place that couldn't be undone," he said. "We really had no other choice. It's not desirable, but it was foreseen. We did plan for it."

About $136 million of stimulus money was spent on Imagine 2014 initiatives last year, Masch said, with the biggest line items $42 million on an expanded summer school and $25 million on reducing class sizes in the early grades.

The need to reach into reserves to balance this year's budget came from a state decision on the federal education jobs bill, Masch said.

The district was banking on $71 million from the bill, but shortly after Gov. Corbett took office in January, he notified districts that while they would receive the federal money, state funding would be reduced by a corresponding amount.

Accumulated over the last two years, the district's reserves were earmarked "to help balance the fiscal year '12 budget," Masch said, but some of that money is needed now.

The SRC also heard from speakers who asked it to reconsider voting to turn over two high schools to charter organizations later in the month.

Last month, members of the Martin Luther King High School Advisory Council endorsed Mosaica Education, a national, for-profit charter provider, to run King, and the SRC approved that choice.

But the day after the vote, Mosaica abruptly withdrew, and Foundations Inc., which has ties to State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), was given the school. Foundations has been involved at King since 2002.

Council member Wanda Lassiter implored the SRC to not let politics get in the way of doing the right thing. "Please refrain from selling our students out to the highest bidder," she said. "They deserve more than that. I ask that you support the recommendation of the school advisory council of Martin Luther King High School."

Activist Ceatrice Beard said King had not improved under Foundations.

"We believe it's not over until it's over," Beard said. "I'm asking you to please reconsider and make the school a Promise school, make it a Renaissance charter for someone else, or at least wait a year."

The district has two kinds of Renaissance schools: Promise Academies, district-run turnarounds that get extra resources and new staffs, and Renaissance charters, given to outside organizations to run.

But some spoke up for Foundations. King teacher David Mandell told the SRC that "it's time to move forward" and that Foundations had made King a better place.

Members of the Audenried High community also spoke out. That school is set to be given to Universal Cos. Inc. as a charter school.

Student Onika Richardson said the school had improved dramatically since it reopened three years ago and deserved a chance to show it could continue to get better.

Universal, Richardson said, doesn't have enough of a track record and has provided few details on how it will bolster Audenried.

"It is April, and they have yet to show us any proof that they have a plan for us," Richardson said. "This is simply not good enough for us. Would it be a good enough answer for your children's education? I don't think so."

Teacher Hope Moffett also blasted the district for failing to consider the community's wishes for Audenried. Moffett drew headlines when the district sent her to the so-called rubber room for giving students tokens they used to attend a protest of the plan for their school, and for disclosing the news reporters.

Now back in the classroom, Moffett is still speaking out.

"I contend that my vocal opposition was the reason I was removed," she told the SRC. "This is intimidation of the worst kind. When personnel disputes leave students without a teacher, how can we say that children come first?"

SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. said he could not respond to Moffett because her case was in arbitration.

The SRC is scheduled to vote on the charters for Audenried, King, and several other schools April 27.

Other speakers implored the SRC to keep cuts to art and music to a minimum.

Denise Kinney, executive director of Musicopia, a nonprofit that provides city children with music instruction, said the arts community "understands that this is a tough time. And we understand that there are hard decisions to be made." But, she said, "music matters. It's not ancillary. It's not peripheral. It's not fluff."

Audenried sophomore Dyshanae Morris made her point in a clear, lovely voice, singing "A Change Is Gonna Come."

The arts, Morris said, give "students like me opportunities in life. But it also gives us a chance to show what we love to do, and to share it with the world."


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.

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