DN Editorial: DOING THE MATH

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite Jr. talks to students at Greenfield Elementary in Center City. Next month, after two on the job, he will issue a report outlining his priorities.
Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite Jr. talks to students at Greenfield Elementary in Center City. Next month, after two on the job, he will issue a report outlining his priorities. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)

Hite's plan for school district faces the red-ink reality

Posted: January 09, 2013

EVERY NEW superintendent releases a plan soon after taking office - a blueprint for how things will be different this time as he attempts to turn around our struggling schools. Superintendent William Hite's action plan for city schools, released Monday, calls for higher SAT scores, early literacy and placement of more students in advanced math. But his plan has something that recent superintendents haven't included in theirs: an acknowledgment that money is a problem.

As he explains, "The School District of Philadelphia does not have the luxury to set its education agenda without regard for financial implications and sustainability, nor can it be successful if financial decisions are divorced from educational impact."

Hite is alone among recent superintendents in taking ownership of this issue. Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman, his immediate predecessors, let others handle the gritty work of making sure the district's budget was balanced. They did not hesitate to add programs or personnel without worrying if there was money for them.

A surprise deficit helped end Vallas' career in Philadelphia. Ackerman ramped up spending based on $500 million in temporary state and federal stimulus money that disappeared one year, never to return.

Ackerman's interim successor, Thomas Knudsen, had to cut $475 million out of the district's budget and shed 3,770 district jobs in order to prevent the ship from sinking. Still, it was not enough.

Critics of Hite's plan to close more than three dozen schools assert that the district's financial problems are overstated and could easily be rectified with a few truckloads of additional dollars from Harrisburg. (Don't waste time waiting for those trucks to arrive.)

But Hite has to deal with reality. The onerous cuts Knudsen had to make did not solve the district's problems. It had to borrow $300 million this year just to meet operating costs - the equivalent of taking out a mortgage to pay for food and utilities. The district says that unless it reels in costs, it will accumulate a $1 billion deficit over the next five years.

This year, district costs are up $310 million over last year, most of it for salary increases due teachers and support staff ($46 million), higher costs for health insurance ($14 million) and a large payment due to union health and welfare funds ($66 million).

Philadelphia, like every other district in the state, also must supply more money to the state-run teachers' pension fund - $44 million this year alone.

To make up for these increased costs, Hite has said he needs concessions from the district's teachers' union along the lines of recent cuts from the custodians' union.

Teachers' union president Jerry Jordan reacted to Hite's plan with his own release Monday; not surprisingly, his message identifies him as part of the group waiting for the money trucks from Harrisburg.

Barring large infusions of cash, the district faces a difficult five years as it struggles to meet payroll, pay the necessary pension and benefit costs, and still deliver a strong educational program.

It's time, the superintendent says, for everyone to face reality.

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