Phila. School District releases budget with $216 million deficit

Posted: April 27, 2014

Without a $216 million cash infusion, the Philadelphia School District faces yet another unthinkable situation in September - class sizes as big as 41, layoffs of more than 1,000 employees, and further cuts to special education services, nurses, and other basics already in short supply.

"Short of that $216 million, our schools will go from insufficient to empty shells that do not represent what I consider a functioning school," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said at a grim Friday news conference introducing the district's 2014-15 budget: a $2.8 billion plan that keeps the status quo.

The $216 million is a floor that buys only what the district has right now, Hite said, but he is requesting $440 million to improve the schools' bare-bones conditions. The current level of funding does not allow for counselors or nurses in every building or adequate supplies.

To get the $440 million, the district is seeking $75 million from the city, $150 million from the state, $95 million from labor concessions, and $120 million from an extension of the 1 percent sales tax.

Absent new contributions from the city, state. and unions, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, there is hardly a place left to turn to but where it hurts most, officials said. Cuts to schools and administrative supports would "cripple a system already depleted from years of expenditure reductions, including over $140 million in FY14 alone," officials said in the district's budget document.

Not getting the $216 million would mean class sizes increasing to 37 (from 33) in early grades, and 40 and 41 in middle grades and high schools, both of which now top out at 33.

There would be 1,000 staff layoffs - about 800 of them teachers - and cuts including but not limited to "reductions in special education, nurses, school police, alternative education, transportation, facilities, and administrative supports," the budget statement said. Transportation cuts could mean extending some students' travel time to school to two hours.

Officials said the cuts would hurt the system's most vulnerable students.

If the district's funding sources exceed the $216 million asked and approach the $440 million number, that buys the district a little breathing room.

The additional money, officials said, would fund early literacy programs, one counselor for every school, extracurricular activities, additional Advanced Placement and SAT prep courses, more support for teachers, and more money to repair the district's aging buildings, many of which are in very poor shape.

Hite said he was "agnostic" about how the money might be raised, but it was clear Friday that there was no immediate clear path to any significant funds.

Some possible revenue sources include $120 million from an extension of the sales tax; a cigarette tax; a change in the state's charter reimbursement; a shift in the city millage rate; a tax on Marcellus Shale; and increased real estate collections.

Jay Pagni, a spokesman for Gov. Corbett, said the state's taxpayers continue to support the district, but that "it's past time the City Council and union do the same."

"As has been stated repeatedly, the solution to the district's financial woes rests solely on the shoulders of the PFT and City Council," Pagni said.

Mark McDonald, the mayor's spokesman, said the district's budget provided a "pretty stark analysis" of the district's money woes.

"It is time for Philadelphians to step up," he said. "We need both the sales tax and we need cigarettes. We need help in Harrisburg and we need action in City Council."

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, meanwhile, has begun exploring ways to create more financial oversight of the district separate from the SRC.

Jane Roh, Clarke's spokeswoman, said because the district was asking for "more emergency funding" this year, Clarke "believes a discussion about increased City Council oversight of district finances is warranted."

According to an internal memo, Clarke is asking the state to set up an "oversight authority" of five to seven members, modeled on the city's financial overseer, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA). The new authority would have at least two appointees from Council, and would have "full and contemporaneous access to all financial material prepared by and for the School District."

The panel would also have authority over the district's long-term financial planning, and would submit periodic reports on the district's financial condition.

For the last several years, the school system has found itself in a state of perpetual crisis. State funding to the district has been severely cut back under the Corbett administration.

And over the last decade, the district has lost tens of thousands of students - including a deliberate shrinking, in some cases, by giving schools to charters - and struggled to keep up as its numbers have shifted.

There are now 86 charter schools in the city, enrolling more than 60,000 children. Payments to charters - $767 million in the 2015 budget - represent 31 percent of the spending plan. Four years ago, charter payments were about 18 percent of the budget.

Retirement benefits and medical costs also have hit the district, and many others around the country, hard. Philadelphia schools also pay a high price for debt service. The district will spend a whopping $280 million on debt service in 2015 - 11 percent of its budget.

Jerry Jordan, the PFT president, in a statement decried the picture presented by Hite, which he said was tantamount to "the intentional dismantling of a school district."

"With each passing year, the future of our schoolchildren takes another crushing blow," Jordan said.

School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green agreed that the picture was bleak.

"We cannot have another year where we're cutting," Green said. "We have to get stable . . . so we can fight for the future instead of worrying about every single year. . . . We can't go any further. We'll be in the mud at the bottom of the hill, and it's a very steep hill."

A hearing on the budget will be held at a special SRC meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the district's North Broad Street headquarters.


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

Inquirer staff writers Troy Graham and Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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