Philadelphia schools see another hole on horizon

Posted: November 22, 2013

PHILADELPHIA Even as it limps through this school year with a shortage of staff, supplies, and programs, the Philadelphia School District must plan for another crisis on the horizon - a hole that could reach $400 million or more for 2014-15.

As it does this year, the district will likely need $300 million just to open schools at bare-bones levels, plus as much as $100 million more to pay next year's bills.

The district got some help from the city and state this year, chief financial officer Matthew Stanski told City Council's education committee on Wednesday, but virtually all of that aid was one-time funding.

"Next year," Stanski told Council, "our costs are expected to increase by $75 million to $100 million, due to higher pensions and health benefits, utility expenses, charter school payments, and salaries."

And that does not take into account the millions the district is banking on, but has not yet realized, in givebacks from its largest union.

Talks with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers are proceeding slowly, with no end in sight.

New details about the district's continuing financial bind emerged at the committee hearing, which was called to discuss state funding for Philadelphia schools.

The consensus? It's woeful. Philadelphia has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid in recent years, and many schools now lack counselors, nurses, adequate books, and after-school activities.

Pennsylvania is one of just three states that lacks a public-school-funding formula based on individual students' learning needs.

"When I read in the paper that a suburban school has a sushi chef on Wednesdays, and I visit a school that has to deny its students access to new computers and books for lack of funding, I can't but think that there is a better way for the state to ensure fair and equitable funding for all its students, regardless of zip code," Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer, told Council.

Council members agreed that the state needed a new funding formula so the district didn't have to beg for money every year.

But some expressed frustration with district officials. Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. and others pushed Stanski on when the district would share its 2015 state funding request with Council, suggesting the district did not produce information in a timely way.

And though they acknowledged that Philadelphia has spent far less than surrounding districts while it has educated needier children, Councilman David Oh and Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell suggested that the roughly $11,000 per student has not been used well.

"How can we be spending all this money and not educating our children?" Blackwell asked. Only about half of district students perform at grade level in reading and math.

Stanski was firm. "Eleven thousand may sound like a lot, but it's really not," he said, "when you compare us to a lot of districts around the country."

Lower Merion schools, for instance, spend more than $20,000 per student.

Testifying on behalf of PFT president Jerry Jordan, Hillary Linardopoulos castigated state officials as leaving school funding to others.

"They view adequate public education funding as an option," said Linardopoulos, a PFT staff member. "It is not. It is a constitutional obligation, and the Corbett administration has been derelict in meeting this obligation."

215-854-5146 @newskag

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