‘Catastrophic’ budget laid out by Philly schools

Posted: April 19, 2013

If the "catastrophic" budget picture Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. laid out Thursday comes to pass, Philadelphia schools would be virtually unrecognizable come September.

There could be no money for counselors or librarians. There might be no sports or extracurricular activities. No dedicated funds for secretaries, aides, or summer school would be provided. And that would follow the steep cuts made over the last two years.

There also could be 3,000 layoffs, including some teachers.

This doomsday scenario comes as a result of a deficit of more than $300 million in the district's $2.7 billion 2013-14 budget. Officials have asked for $120 million in additional funding from the state and $60 million from the city, as well as $133 million in concessions from labor unions.

But none of that money is guaranteed.

"Too many budgets and contracts in the past were being based on what we had hoped for and not necessarily what was real," Hite said.

Laying out the grimmest possible reality is a strategic move, as the district makes its case in Harrisburg and City Hall for more funding and sits at the negotiating table with its unions, including the 15,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

But $220 million in additional school-based cuts is a very real possibility. Union officials have said they would not bow to demands for big concessions, and while Mayor Nutter has signaled his support for the district's request, early signs from the state are not promising and City Council seems skeptical.

Even Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said this budget picture could come to pass.

"Clearly, this is a possibility," Jordan said. "Our kids are in the middle."

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett called it a "sobering presentation" that would cut not frills, but "basic things that every child should have."

This year, the district borrowed $300 million just to heat buildings and pay employees. That is not an option going forward, Hite and Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski said.

"To continue to borrow just continues to put the district on the path to bankruptcy," Hite said.

Principals will receive their individual school budgets Friday. They will be asked to absorb cuts of about 25 percent, receiving only enough money to fund a principal and teachers based on the contractual class-size maximum: 33 for older grades and 30 for kindergarten through third grade.

"We can't afford anything else," Hite said. "Schools will not be able to offer everything that's mandated, both by statute or contract. We're making a judgment call."

It's unclear what the ramifications of flouting contracts and state law might be.

Schools, under this scenario, would still offer services for special-education students and English-language learners, which are also mandated by law. There would also still be school police, food services, transportation, and nurses - but fewer of them: While the ratio is one nurse per 1,000 students, it would go up to the maximum of one per 1,500.

There is little room left to maneuver, Hite said. Many costs are rising - the district will pay more for employee benefits and must contribute more to pension funds - or fixed, including $280 million in debt service and $729 million for charter schools.

(The School Reform Commission on Thursday night budgeted up to $15 million over two years for a new cyber school, but officials have said that the figure was a ceiling and that the virtual school would bring back students now in cyber charters, meaning savings for the district.)

Charter advocates are pushing hard for a number of expansions, but those seem unlikely.

"Any seat would obviously add a cost to the budget," Stanski said.

Hite said he realized that many were wary of the district's financial pronouncements. But this time, he said, tough decisions have already been made, including closing more than 30 schools in 18 months.

"We are not crying wolf," Hite said. "Our budget situation is dire."

Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer, said that the district's budget scenario was "extremely concerning" but should not be surprising. This budget is "surely not what we want for children of this city - and we must all commit to ensuring it never becomes a reality."

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez said that although tough, "this is what City Council has requested - real budgets. Over the next 60 days, we have to discuss and ultimately decide if we believe our children deserve better. I will certainly do what I can for them."

"The scenario that the district laid out today should be extremely concerning to us all, but it should not be surprising given the financial situation the district laid out last month in its budget," she said. "The vision of education within this scenario is surely not what we want for the children of this city - and we must all commit to ensuring it never becomes a reality."

State Rep. Bill Adolph (R., Delaware), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has met with Nutter about the district's finances. He sympathizes with the district's plight, but there is only so much money to go around, Adolph said, and Philadelphia's request is more than 1.5 times the amount of additional funding that Gov. Corbett proposed for all 500 districts combined.

"I listened to their plan, and all I said to them is that these proposals for funding requests come in, and we will listen to them," Adolph said.


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.

Inquirer staff writers Troy Graham and Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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