The Philadelphia School District’s gaping budget hole

Posted: March 29, 2013

Already in dire financial straits, the Philadelphia School District must now find ways to plug a hole of as much as $304 million next year.

The School Reform Commission on Thursday night passed a $2.7 billion preliminary 2013-14 budget with few details and multiple question marks.

Its current gap-filling plan requires $120 million in new money from the state, $60 million in new city funding, and paycuts of roughly 10 percent from all employees, including teachers and other unionized workers.

Each of those line items will be a tough sell, to say the least.

And that's not the only pain coming. At the same time, a 29 percent loss to the district's federal grants budget - a separate pool of money from the operating budget discussed on Thursday - will impact the district's neediest students, and could mean the loss of 1,300 school-based jobs.

Everyone involved acknowledged the operating budget was a brutal spending plan that requires "shared sacrifices."

But those sacrifices come on top of multiple years of deep losses - hundreds of millions slashed from school budgets, with cuts to nursing and counseling staffs, athletics, music and arts.

In the past 18 months, the SRC has also ordered more than 30 schools shut, and will soon vote on two more closings. The district's lowest-paid workers agreed to millions in givebacks. The central office staff was cut nearly in half.

The current plan is for $6 million more in cuts to central office, though. No layoffs are expected; positions that become vacant will not be filled. Further savings will be found through reducing contracts, utilities and transportation efficiencies, officials said.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said protecting classrooms was a priority.

"We're trying not to impact schools any more than they've been impacted already," Hite said.

Still, the federal cuts will certainly hit schools. Expiring federal stimulus money, cuts to Title I funds, and the loss of large Department of Labor and Department of Education grants will affect poor students, students learning English, those with special education needs and others.

And, as Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn acknowledged, risk is inherent.

"Everybody has to agree for us to share in the sacrifice in order for us not to hit schools," Kihn said.

Already engaged in tense contract negotiations, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers was displeased with the district's calculations. PFT President Jerry Jordan said teachers would not accept the 10 percent reduction.

"We're not going backwards," Jordan said. "Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers did not create this deficit, and this deficit should not be closed on the backs of their families, their children, their lives."

Reaction from City Hall - where officials have given the district $90 million in new money since 2010 - was mixed. Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez said that if the state came up with the district's request, "I believe City Council will strongly consider it." But, she underscored, "we cannot continue to absorb all costs locally. The state has to do more."

But Councilman Bill Green, who noted that the district has "never presented a budget that has turned out to be accurate," was less optimistic.

"Subject to hearing something very surprising, my position is that they need to look to Harrisburg, not to City Council," Green said. "We've been there trying to fill the gap that Harrisburg left, but it's time for Gov. Corbett to put the resources back into the school district that he took out during the recession."

Green also said the district would benefit from discussing what it hopes to do with extra funding with Council members before announcing publicly a figure it wants from them.

Mayor Nutter, who has strongly championed the district's case for more money in each of the last several years, said that "we will very seriously consider this new SRC request for more funds for public education in Philadelphia in the context of the overall city budget and tax rate." He also pledged to help the district's cause in Harrisburg, as well.

But the district's chances for getting more money from Harrisburg do not look good.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said Thursday that the state is facing "a very tight budget," and that "there is no surplus waiting to be allocated."

"There is a lot of demand on our existing revenues as it is," said Pileggi. "There is only so much to go around."

Pileggi also noted that there are 500 school districts, each with financial stresses. He said the new Philadelphia request would be a hard sell in his Republican caucus.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, noted that Gov. Corbett has already proposed a $90 million increase for basic education in his budget plan, and that given the state's finances, Philadelphia's request likely won't be granted.

"I'm not saying it won't happen." Eller said, "but at this point it seems to be unlikely given the state of the budget."

Tuesday night's budget action marked the first of a months-long process. A more detailed budget will be released next month, and the final budget will be adopted by the end of May.


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

 


Staff writers Angela Couloumbis and Miriam Hill contributed to this article.

 

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