Phila. SRC approves doomsday school budget

Music teacher Margaret Lineman applauds high school music students performing at a rally at district headquarters.
Music teacher Margaret Lineman applauds high school music students performing at a rally at district headquarters. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 01, 2013

The Philadelphia School District's doomsday scenario moved a step closer to reality Thursday night.

Amid angry shouts of "disgrace!", the School Reform Commission approved a $2.4 billion budget that includes cuts that Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said would be catastrophic for the city's schools.

Joseph A. Dworetzky was the only one of five commissioners to vote against the budget, saying he did not believe that the administration had looked hard enough to find other savings.

The vote followed hours of impassioned pleas from students, parents, and educators, both at the meeting and during a late afternoon rally outside district headquarters on North Broad Street.

In the absence of new funds to cover a $304 million projected shortfall, schools will open in the fall without new books, paper, clubs, counselors, librarians, assistant principals, or secretaries.

Athletics, art, and music would be gone. There could be 3,000 layoffs, including some teachers.

Class sizes would be larger, and schools would have no aides to help manage them or support staff to monitor lunchrooms and playgrounds.

"We should not think that today is the end of anything," said Pedro Ramos, chairman of the SRC. He pledged that the commission and the district would continue to press for additional funds.

Hite has asked for $60 million in extra funding from the city and $120 million from the state. The district also is seeking more than $100 million in givebacks from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

"This is not the budget anyone wants," Hite said. "I'm doing everything in my power to prevent this budget from becoming a reality."

The budget is based solely on known revenue, Hite said, and does not reflect any new funds from the city or state or savings from union contracts.

"To be fiscally responsible, the Philadelphia school district must live within its means," he said.

But Hite said the budget he put before the SRC in no way reflected his idea of public education and the programs and services students need. He said the SRC would amend the budget if additional funds are provided.

To provide more city funds for the schools, Mayor Nutter has proposed to tax cigarettes at $2 a pack and raise the city's liquor-by-the-drink tax from 10 percent to 15 percent.

He and several legislators have unveiled bills to give the city increased powers to crack down on delinquent taxpayers.

The mayor estimated that his plan would raise an additional $95 million for the schools in 2013-14 and $135 million in the following year, but it was unclear whether Harrisburg - or City Council - would pass the legislation necessary to implement the plan.

Dworetzky, who participated in the meeting via speakerphone, said he agreed with Hite's assessment that the City Charter requires a school budget to be passed by May 31, but added, "I don't think this is the budget we should adopt."

Among other things, he said, "before we take the drastic action of this budget, we should be satisfied that we have turned over every stone" to search for new sources of revenues, find savings, and eliminate expenses that do not benefit students. Dworetzky said the administration had done some of that but he was not satisfied it had done enough.

Throughout Thursday night's SRC meeting, speaker after speaker appealed to commission members not to adopt a budget that would slash staff and eliminate programs ranging from music to athletics.

Parent activist Helen Gym labeled the impending budget vote "an immoral act" and warned that "the people won't forget it."

More than 57 speakers took their turns to talk about the importance of art and music teachers, counselors, librarians, school police officers, and nurses.

"The classroom environment will get messed up," said Manaz Bell, a sixth grader at Julia De Burgos School in Fairhill. "Please find ways to get other funding for our schools."

"What have we done wrong as students and teachers to be the target of these cuts?" asked Nikki Adeli, a sophomore at Science Leadership Academy in Center City.

Before the meeting, more than 800 people gathered outside district headquarters to protest the cuts.

The late-afternoon crowd was a mix of parents, politicians, students, and employees. Many carried signs that read, "There is nothing left to cut," "I am a teacher and I care about my school," and "Public schools are for children, don't let corporations take them over."

As a sign of unity, the crowd dressed in red, white, or blue T-shirts.

City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell assured the crowd at the 90-minute rally that she supported the effort.

Evette Jones, a community engagement coordinator, recalled that while she was in school, the emphasis was not on standardized testing; there were sports, music, and activities to display the students' talents. With the proposed budget cuts, Jones said, many of Philadelphia's schoolchildren will no longer have those experiences.

Jones said the SRC should put children first and support public education, and urged Gov. Corbett not to turn his back on the children of Philadelphia.


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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