"What we're offering," district spokesman Fernando Gallard said, "is a way out of this constant financial instability."
District enrollment is shrinking. It is struggling to close a $304 million deficit that led to thousands of employee layoffs. It already pays teachers less than their counterparts in the suburbs, making it harder to attract top candidates. Perhaps most important, the district lacks the political clout needed to get more long-term state funding, which many see as the only way to save public education as it exists in the district.
Unlike other Pennsylvania school districts, Philadelphia's lacks the authority to tax and raise money; it is at the mercy of a state that has cut funding and a city that has been reluctant to make it up, each pointing fingers at the other.
Meanwhile, families are voting with their feet: Over the last 15 years, the district has bled 77,000 students, 36 percent of its enrollment, many to the city's burgeoning charter schools, which will enroll 63,000 students this year. The demand for charter school seats seems insatiable: Parents view charters as safer, better alternatives, even though some perform the same as or worse than public schools or have faced large-scale embezzlement scandals.
About 30,000 students are on waiting lists for one or more of 86 charter schools, says the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
If the district does not turn itself around, it could end up nothing more than a provider of special-education services with a few magnet schools, surrounded by a patchwork of charter schools.
District officials and Mayor Nutter, with support from the Corbett administration, say the path to improvement is through labor concessions. Those include giving the district flexibility in assigning and laying off teachers without regard for seniority, a closely guarded union right. If approved, the district's proposals likely would spur the state to release $45 million and set the stage for the district to begin receiving $120 million annually, starting in July, from the extra 1 percent the city levies atop the state sales tax.
"That's huge for us - a new funding source that is recurring," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said. "It could go a long way toward balancing the budget and helping us become more stable."
But several parent and youth advocacy groups are backing the teachers' union and saying the city and state need to find money to bring back 2,400 laid-off workers so schools have what they need for a solid start on Sept. 9.
"I certainly would understand if the teachers went on strike until the state comes through and funds the schools," said Melissa Wilde, a sociology professor and mother of two children at Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia. "It's absurd that this is happening in the United States of America."
Philadelphia teachers earn 13 percent to 19 percent less than their suburban counterparts but tend to work a shorter day, and most do not pay toward their health insurance.
If the district cannot offer monetary incentives, it should provide teachers something else, perhaps flexibility in curriculum or the right to expel unruly students from their classrooms, said Ingersoll, the Penn professor.
Hite said the district eventually, though not next year, would like to reward with raises teachers who perform well. He recognizes the district is asking much.
"The goal," Hite said, "is not to create ill will among teachers. They are our most important resource. We don't pay them enough for what they do. We're trying to navigate through a set of extraordinary circumstances."
Despite the challenges, several teachers said they remained committed to the schools. Even Ted Williams, 29, of Northern Liberties, who was laid off - for the second time - in June. "If the district called," he said, "I would happily go back."
Germantown High School, where Williams most recently taught social studies, was closed in June because of falling enrollment.
Even with union concessions and new funding, though, the district anticipates ending the 2013-14 fiscal year next summer with a deficit of more than $40 million unless other savings or revenue are generated during the year.
Securing additional state aid must be the long-term goal, public school education advocates say.
"It's long past time that the state step up," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "Philadelphia is one of the most poorly supported of the major cities of any place in the country."
City Finance Director Rob Dubow said last month the district had a drop of $145 million in state funding between July 1, 2010, and last month, while city aid increased by $155 million.
Nutter's office is connecting with education advocates around the state to plan an effort to persuade the governor and legislature to change Pennsylvania's basic education funding formula in the year ahead.
"We have been talking about the importance of a new formula for the last two years to anyone that would listen," said Lori Shorr, the mayor's chief education adviser. "And, thankfully, now many folks are where we are on the need for action."
But the city will have to mount its effort without a lot of influential allies in Harrisburg, where Republicans rule the legislature. Much of the political muscle Philadelphia had in the Capitol 10 or 15 years ago has fallen out of power or gone to jail.
As a result, the mayor and district have tried to work with the Corbett administration and House Republicans for funding, which had local and national education advocates crying foul.
"For teachers to be viewed as a pinata by the mayor and be pummeled by so-called reformers, it's a real dark day," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
She said city and state leaders can and should come up with funding. The city, for example, could ask wealthy tax-exempt organizations, such as the University of Pennsylvania, to contribute toward the schools, she said.
Charter school payments also draw from the district's budget. The district will pay more than $700 million of its $2.4 billion budget to charter schools this year.
At most charters, which are independent public schools, principals are not bound by union rules and have more leeway to select teachers and create a cohesive learning team.
"We're trying to put the district in a place where it can compete," Hite said.
But the competition is tough. The Russell Byers Charter School in Center City opened Monday with two deans, three reading specialists, a nurse, a social worker, a school police officer, several teaching assistants, and enough teachers to keep class sizes at 25 to 27.
"We had one bus break down. So far this week, that is the biggest crisis we've faced," said Drew Smith, principal of the 485-student elementary school.
By contrast, not all district schools will open with a counselor or an assistant principal. Class sizes are expected to reach 30 in primary grades and 33 in upper grades.
Smith said he, too, had had to freeze pay and cut costs and would have to cut further next year, when funding from the district drops.
Charters and district schools should work together to find a solution, he said.
"The message that every school leader in Philadelphia ought to be delivering is: 'We're all in this together,' " Smith said. "Somehow, we have to stop being adversarial and join together and get what these kids need."
Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693, email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at www.inquirer.com/campusinq.