Philadelphia schools face ugly budget options

Service Employees International Union Local 1201 president George Ricchezza voices his displeasure to police after being denied entrance to the School District of Philadelphia Building after in a noon protest march up N. Broad St. Wednesday, May 23, 2012. The estimated 2700 protesters marched back down N. Broad St where 14 protesters, including Ricchezza, staged a sit-in at the intersection of Broad and Race St and were later arrested. ( Clem Murray / Staff Photographer )
Service Employees International Union Local 1201 president George Ricchezza voices his displeasure to police after being denied entrance to the School District of Philadelphia Building after in a noon protest march up N. Broad St. Wednesday, May 23, 2012. The estimated 2700 protesters marched back down N. Broad St where 14 protesters, including Ricchezza, staged a sit-in at the intersection of Broad and Race St and were later arrested. ( Clem Murray / Staff Photographer )
Posted: May 28, 2012

Less than a week before the School Reform Commission must adopt a 2012-13 budget, even the best-case scenario is ugly.

If City Council green-lights $94.5 million in new money for the Philadelphia School District via the mayor's Actual Value Initiative plan, the district will get a $2.5 billion budget that still leaves many schools without full-time nurses or police officers, let alone robust extracurricular and athletic offerings. It also still would require the district to finance a $218 million shortfall through borrowing.

"It's not the kind of budget to give kids the education they deserve," said Penny Nixon, the district's chief academic officer, frowning as she flipped through a thick stack of school budgets.

And if Council, skeptical after being burned by the district in the past, doesn't come through with the money?

"I will be very candid - I don't know what we would do," said Nixon.

Asked if the district might borrow $94 million more on top of the hundreds of millions it is already planning on borrowing, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos echoed what chief recovery officer Thomas Knudsen has said.

"That is an unthinkable scenario," Ramos said Friday. "We just hope that City Council will do what's right."

Officials had earlier raised the specter of school not opening in September without the extra city cash.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said Friday that "we can always open the doors, but the issue is what you're going to find inside."

Schools already absorbed two rounds of brutal cuts in fiscal 2012 as the district was forced to slash about $700 million as a result of reduced state funding and what Ramos has previously called "bad fiscal policy" - too much borrowing, too much spending.

But now, there's no fat left, and some bone has already been chipped away, Nixon said.

Take Meredith Elementary, a high-performing neighborhood school in Queen Village. Its total 2012-13 budget is about $3.1 million for 524 students - an 11 percent jump in enrollment over this year - including all salaries, supplies, and support programs. About $224,000 of that comes from grant funds. The 2013 budget is up 6 percent from the 2012 budget, but still significantly down from the $3.7 million 2011 budget.

Many line items - teachers, special-education services, English as a Second Language programs - cannot be cut because of laws or contracts.

What's left to possibly reduce or get rid of? Things such as full-day kindergarten (about $100,000), instrumental music ($49,800), and the operating budget ($440,437), which pays for a principal and secretary, books, supplies, and other essentials.

If the AVI money doesn't come through, Meredith would have to cut $171,531, the district has calculated - that's about 18 percent of its budget excluding teachers it is required by law and contract to employ.

And Meredith is in a better spot than most. Its active parents group raised thousands of dollars to stave off some cuts this school year, but Meredith is already without a full-time nurse, gifted-and-talented teacher, assistant principal, dean of students, academic coach, and reading and math teachers to work with struggling or high-achieving small groups of students.

South Philadelphia High, with a $7.7 million budget for 2013, down 13 percent from its 2012 budget, would be forced to absorb an 11 percent cut of its total budget excluding teacher salaries. Meade School in North Philadelphia, whose $2.8 million 2013 budget contains virtually no increase over this year's spending plan, would be forced to lose about $152,000 - a cut of about 18 percent excluding teachers' pay.

The possibility of turning to schools for more cuts is visibly painful for Nixon, a former district teacher and principal.

Even with the AVI money, "we still don't have enough nurses, sports programs, extracurriculars that we know are important to students," Nixon said. "I'm concerned about safety. If you have one person or maybe two noontime aides who are in charge of safety for the building, I don't know if that's enough. Teachers have been outstanding and so have principals, but we need to let teachers get back to the business of teaching."

No matter what, four areas will not be cut, period, Nixon has said - full-day kindergarten; early-childhood programs; reduced class sizes in grades K through 3; and supports for special, alternative, and vocational-education students and English-language learners.

A few academic cuts have already been enacted on top of the myriad losses of this school year in everything from nursing services to middle-school sports.

One new cut is summer school, which operated last year at a cost of $18 million. This year, it's virtually gone, with only grant-funded programs and programs for students very close to graduation operating.

"I had to choose between full-day kindergarten or summer school," Nixon said, shrugging.

Other uncertainties are built into the budget, too. Officials are banking on squeezing $156 million out of labor costs, and the teachers' union says it won't cooperate. The district also wants to realize about $50 million in savings from modernizing transportation, custodial, and maintenance services, and has threatened to lay off 2,700 blue-collar workers.

A resolution introduced Thursday by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez would hold up district funding until a settlement is reached with 32BJ, the blue-collar workers' union.

Nixon knows that Council is leery of handing over more cash to the district; she and others faced two days of lively public questioning earlier this month, and they have also met one-on-one with Council members.

Council wanted to see budgets, chapter and verse. Members wanted to know why the state wasn't being asked for more funds while the city was being asked to perform a very heavy lift.

And they wanted to know how this year was different from last, when district officials threatened to cut full-day kindergarten if they didn't get millions from Council, then came up with the money elsewhere.

"We have been misled for years about the state of the school district's woes. There has not been the level of accountability that the public and that the Council expect," Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said at a hearing earlier this month.

"I know it's hard for us to say 'trust us' because of what's happened in the past," Nixon said. "But I think we are showing that we are serious. We've been really transparent about the numbers, and about giving City Council information."

Council has not indicated when it might make a decision on AVI, Nixon said. The SRC must adopt a budget Thursday.

It is not, however, voting Thursday on its controversial transformation plan, which would dramatically change the way city schools are organized and run.

Officials had initially indicated they would vote on the overhaul blueprint with the budget, but that timeline has changed, with more time for public input. A vote is now not expected on the overhaul until 2013.

The plan called for 40 school buildings to close in 2013 and six more annually through 2017. Mass school closings - either outright shutdowns of schools or building closures with programs collocated - are still on the table, even without a vote, Nixon said.

"We have to close schools," Nixon said. "A pretty significant number of schools."

Nixon said that the closures were not aimed at putting more students in charter schools, as one theory holds. The district must shed under-enrolled, aging buildings it can no longer afford, with the savings going back into other district schools.


See the budgets of each of the district's 200-plus schools and the impact of not getting $94.5 million in AVI money, at philly.com/budgetcuts.


Contact Kristen Graham

at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/ schoolfiles.

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