Hite: Phila schools will open on time

The outcry was strong at a special session of the School Reform Commission, which agreed to temporarily suspend parts of the state school code, including one dealing with seniority, as workers are recalled.
The outcry was strong at a special session of the School Reform Commission, which agreed to temporarily suspend parts of the state school code, including one dealing with seniority, as workers are recalled. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 17, 2013

The schools will open on time.

Philadelphia School District officials said Thursday that classes would begin Sept. 9 as scheduled, now that the city has vowed to come up with the $50 million the district needs - even though city leaders remain divided about the source of those funds.

"Schools will open Sept. 9," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said emphatically Thursday night.

He said earlier in the day that top city officials had met his Friday deadline for pledging the $50 million. "They have assured us they are going to work it out in order to give us access to the funds," he said.

The news affects 136,000 students and their families, who had feared that the district's 212 schools would open late. Hite had warned of such a delay if the district could not count on the city's $50 million.

His statements capped a tumultuous day in which the School Reform Commission, over union protests, temporarily undid some seniority rules, and Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke vowed that the city would cough up the money.

But by day's end, as hundreds of angry parents and teachers packed the special SRC session, Nutter and Clarke remained at odds over how to make that happen.

Both Hite and SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos stressed that there was no deadline for depositing the $50 million in district coffers. "Liquidity isn't the issue right now," Ramos said. "It's important to know now that we're going to get it."

Over chants and catcalls from its audience, the five-member SRC voted unanimously to temporarily suspend parts of the state school code - including one dealing with seniority - to give Hite the ability to return laid-off staff to the schools where they worked in June.

"Our goal is to support students as best we can through these changes by staffing schools with educators who are familiar with their circumstances and needs," said Hite, whose words were frequently drowned out.

"As we approach the new school year, we also need the flexibility to manage schools through this crisis, place resources where they are most needed, and contain potential threats to our long-term fiscal stability."

He said the district still needed additional funds, plus savings and union concessions of more than $120 million, mostly from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Faced with a $304 million deficit, the district laid off nearly 4,000 school employees this summer. Under a state rescue plan approved in June, the city would borrow $50 million against future collections of its extra 1 percent sales tax. Clarke and Nutter disagree over how much of that revenue should go to schools and how much to pensions.

At a morning news conference, Nutter said he had ordered the Finance Department to borrow the $50 million for the schools.

"I will not risk a catastrophe," he said. "I'm not going to allow this crisis to ruin the start of what is certainly a promising school year for our students."

If Council does not approve a plan to extend the city's extra 1 percent sales tax, the mayor said, the city's general fund would be on the hook to pay back the loan and interest - $15 million annually, for four years.

Soon thereafter, Clarke said he opposed borrowing the money and still favors a plan for the city to purchase empty school buildings for $50 million.

Clarke, who stood at a lectern with 10 of his 16 Council colleagues, said he had unanimous support for transferring $50 million to the district once Council returns from recess in September. Its members, he said, "clearly do not support borrowing."

His plan, he insisted, made more sense than Nutter's. "You can't have $200 million of real estate available for sale and you go out and borrow $50 million," Clarke said.

He said he had been talking with Hite about the plan to buy the buildings.

"He said he's agnostic on the revenue, the source," Clarke said. "I mean, he just wants the money."

The Council president and the mayor are in positions to thwart each other's plan.

Council could deny Nutter permission to borrow the $50 million, and could pass an ordinance to transfer the funds to the district by a veto-proof margin. But the mayor could refuse to send the money.

Clarke's plan calls for the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (PAID) to manage the sale of school properties. But PAID's five board members are appointed by the mayor and serve at his pleasure.

Nutter said Clarke's plan of "putting up $50 million as a lump sum has a tremendously negative impact" on city finances.

He also acknowledged that his and Clarke's plans each required approval from the other, and pledged to "work through this process."

"This is not a steel-cage match. This is . . . two branches of government who passionately care about the future of children," Nutter said. "We'll figure this out."

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez and others warned Thursday that regardless of where the $50 million comes from, it won't be enough. "The $50 million gets us to September," she said. "To get to June, we're still going to have to do more."

Hite's response to Nutter's pledge was swift. "Huge thanks to Mayor Nutter for providing assurances of $50 million in order to begin the process of returning critical staff," he tweeted.

But no one was handing out bouquets at the SRC's special session, called to consider suspending parts of the state school code so Hite could bring back laid-off employees without regard to seniority.

Redshirted PFT members decried the proposed anti-seniority move as union-busting. One shirt was emblazoned, "We're not afraid of Hite."

Police officers outside the district's administration building on North Broad Street blocked a crowd of more than 100 people who chanted, "Let us in! It's our meeting!"

Chanting, clapping, stomping, yelling, and whistling drowned out loudspeakers blasting live audio from inside the meeting. About 30 police officers were sprinkled throughout the crowd. Some barricaded paths to the auditorium upstairs, which was packed to capacity.

The proceedings slammed to a halt when some students managed to bypass police and squeezed into the crowded auditorium. Hundreds cheered them on from below.

Sharron Snyder, 18, was one of the few who crammed into an elevator and burst into the auditorium. The Benjamin Franklin High School student was among about eight members of the Philadelphia Student Union who said they came to support their teachers.

"I felt powerful," Snyder said. "It's our future, I feel like we should be a part of it."

The roar died down when speakers such as PFT president Jerry Jordan; Helen Gym, leader of Parents United for Public Education; and Christa Rivers of Youth United for Change, said the vote to temporarily undo seniority rules would hurt the district and harm its teachers.

"You talk about a war on education," Gym told the SRC, "and you fire all the soldiers who are going to do it for you?"

The day's drama played out as the deadline set by Hite neared. He said last week that he would have to delay the opening of schools or take other drastic steps if he did not have a commitment for the $50 million by Friday. He said he needed the money to bring back 1,000 of the 3,859 staffers laid off in June.

With that commitment in hand, Hite said Thursday that the district could begin the process of recalling some counselors, noontime aides, teachers, and assistant principals. Some of the $50 million will pay for paper, school supplies, and trash pickup.

Last month, Hite announced that the district would use $33 million in savings and new funding to recall at least 76 laid-off music teachers and 212 school secretaries, and restore fall sports programs that had been axed.

Gov. Corbett, who has stressed the need for labor concessions and whose education czar must sign off before the state can send Philadelphia schools an additional $45 million, said the SRC's vote gives Hite "additional tools to ensure that Philadelphia schools are staffed adequately and safely" when fall classes begin.

As for where the city should go for its $50 million share of the school bailout, Corbett, a Republican, sided with Nutter, a Democrat, against Clarke, another Democrat.

The governor said he had spoken with Nutter "and I join him in calling on City Council President Darrell Clarke and the entire City Council to act immediately to extend the sales tax and authorize the $50 million in short-term borrowing" as envisioned in the state's funding package.

Then Corbett repeated his call for "savings and academic reforms" in the teachers' contract.


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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