Inquirer Editorial: Schools open amid angst

Students, teachers, and activists rallying for school funding last month.
Students, teachers, and activists rallying for school funding last month. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 09, 2013

Fear and loathing shouldn't describe parents' feelings as the first day of school approaches. But in urban districts facing fiscal and staffing issues, they can't help it.

Philadelphia's schools open Monday with no guarantee that the district will have enough money to finish the academic year. Promises have been made, but not enough money has been added to the district's budget.

Months ago, schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced that the district faced a $304 million gap in its $2.7 billion budget and asked the state, city, and employee unions each to kick in something to solve the problem. Their response has been a kick in the rear.

Hite asked the state for an additional $120 million. Gov. Corbett eventually came up with a plan that provides a measly $2 million in new, recurring funding, with the promise of a $45 million one-time grant if the district's unions agree to concessions.

Hite asked the unions for $133 million in concessions, $103 million from the teachers, but labor leaders had not come close to agreeing to that amount as the teachers' contract expired and negotiations continued. So Corbett is still sitting on the grant.

Hite asked the city for $60 million. The mayor came up with more than that on paper, but much less in reality. City Council wouldn't pass an increase in the by-the-drink tax on alcoholic beverages. The legislature wouldn't allow the city to institute its own cigarette tax. And an extension of the city's temporary sales-tax increase was delayed.

After being assured that the sales-tax extension was likely, Mayor Nutter planned to borrow $50 million against the expected proceeds to balance the coming year's schools budget. But Council President Darrell L. Clarke called for reserving more sales-tax revenue for the city's employee pension costs. He argued that the city should boost the School District's budget by paying $50 million for empty school buildings instead. Hite said he couldn't open the schools on time if he couldn't count on the money, and city officials promised they would come up with it one way or the other. As the school year approached, they had not agreed on a plan.

Other local districts face challenges, too. Camden has a new state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, but his youth (he's 32), lack of an advanced degree, and limited experience in New Jersey have some questioning Gov. Christie's choice. One theory is that Christie's preference for charters and vouchers means Camden's traditional public schools will get short shrift.

With so much angst in these parts, it may be hard to believe that others are beginning the school year with optimism. Minnesota's Legislature has approved all-day kindergarten in the public schools, added scholarships for early-childhood education, and frozen college tuition at state schools.

The schools in Baldwin, Mich., meanwhile, are greeting the new year the way they always do - with a parade.

There may be some marching in Philadelphia, too - by parents angry that their children's schools are still in financial limbo.

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