DN Editorial: LISTEN & LEARN

City can't remain in denial about school money woes

Posted: April 09, 2013

ANYONE WHO is unaware of the Philadelphia School District's financial troubles has either been in a coma for the last year . . . or on City Council.

Ever since he arrived to take over the job last fall, Superintendent William Hite has been telling one and all about the district's serious - perhaps fatal - fiscal condition. Thanks to large budget cuts, 1,000-plus layoffs and other drastic measures, the patient has stabilized.

But the district had to borrow $300 million to pay its expenses this year and it projects another $300 million shortfall for next year. Exact details are not known because the district is still in the process of working out its budget.

But, in a letter to Mayor Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke delivered last week, Hite and Pedro Ramos, chairman of the School Reform Commission, informed the city leaders of the contours of the problem and made an "ask."

They want to make up the shortfall by getting concessions from the teachers' union; through an additional $120 million in state aid and by a $60 million increase in aid from the city.

Hite and Ramos are letting it be known that unless more money is forthcoming, the district will have to gut basic programs or it will have to keep spending at unsustainable levels until it runs out of money.

Council's reaction to this announcement? Anger over why the district did not raise the issue sooner. Sharp questioning of administration officials over what the mayor planned to do. Apparent surprise over the fact that the district is in such distress it needed more city help.

You have to feel sorry for Hite. He's been going around town for months talking about the real and perilous financial difficulties the district faces and no one wants to listen. When he proposed closing schools to save money, he was lacerated by Council, among others in the political class.

When he asks for the city to step up and contribute more, he is lacerated again for not asking for the money sooner - so presumably Council could deny his request more quickly.

On one level, the problem Hite has to confront is a political one. No one in leadership locally wants to step forward and lead the way to help the schools. At this stage, that includes Nutter, who makes soothing sounds about helping but has offered no concrete proposal. He wants Council to do that. Council says he should do it. Back and forth the issue goes, like a shuttlecock in a badminton game.

On another level, the problem is a psychological one. City leaders are in denial about the district's problems. Like a frightened toddler, they apparently believe if they close their eyes it will disappear. If you try to talk about it, they put their fingers in their ears.

Denial is fine as far as it goes. But this boogeyman will not go away.

He will only get bigger and uglier, and someday we will have hell to pay for ignoring a very real problem.

Budget talk

City Council is taking the budget to the streets. On Wednesday, Council holds its first neighborhood hearing on the city's 2014 budget: Penn's Landing Caterers, 1301 S. Columbus Blvd., 6-8 p.m. If you want to sign up to testify, call 215-686-3410.

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