School District leaders push Council on funding

File: Bill Green (right), chairman of the School Reform Commission, with Superintendent William Hite. The state's auditor general announced it was conducting an investigation of the Philadelphia school district. (Steven M. Falk/Staff/File)
File: Bill Green (right), chairman of the School Reform Commission, with Superintendent William Hite. The state's auditor general announced it was conducting an investigation of the Philadelphia school district. (Steven M. Falk/Staff/File)
Posted: May 07, 2014

Making a case for a massive infusion of new funding, Philadelphia School District officials told City Council on Monday that it had an obligation to do more.

"If we cannot - or will not - invest in children and their futures, then we have already decided our own: a future that institutionalizes inequity in public education," said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. "These cuts are testing our schools in ways that range from inadequate and unfair to immoral and unconscionable."

Hite and School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green said that without $216 million in new funding, they would have to increase class sizes to up to 41 students, lay off 1,000 employees including teachers, and cancel union contracts.

"How low can we go?" asked Green, who until recently was an at-large member of Council. "At what point do our schools stop being schools?"

To avoid that bleak scenario, Green and Hite are asking the city for $195 million, including $120 million from an extension of the city's extra 1 percent sales tax and $75 million more, possibly from a $2-a-pack cigarette tax.

In total, the school system is proposing a $2.8 billion budget for 2014-15. It's asking for $1.27 billion from the state, up from $1.25 billion this year.

The district needs the $216 million to maintain the current level of services, but is asking for $440 million overall to make investments in things such as counselors, early literacy and Advanced Placement programs.

Clearly frustrated by the district's annual rite of spring - coming to the city with hat in hand, offering evidence of a coming crisis unless more money was forthcoming - City Council President Darrell L. Clarke signaled that Council would "pony up more money this year. We always do."

But he warned that the money would come with more oversight from Council. And he and others questioned the efficacy of the SRC, created in 2001 by the state takeover law.

"The School Reform Commission has not done that great a job," Clarke said.

Councilman James Kenney agreed, saying said he believes the SRC could be a better steward.

"We have to find a way to row our own boat," Kenney said.

"The SRC would like nothing more than to have a financially stable school district and to vote to eliminate itself," Green said.

Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. pushed Green on the numbers, asking what would happen if the $75 million from the cigarette tax - which must be authorized by state lawmakers - doesn't come through.

"Plan B is the drastic cuts we've talked about," Green said.

He acknowledged that the cigarette tax was a reach. "I think it is at best 50-50, at the moment, that we will get through an authorization of that revenue in an election year," he said.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson asked officials why they were spending money to open three new high schools in the fall.

Despite dire conditions at other schools, the district will spend about $3 million to open Building 21, the LINC, and the U School, project-based schools with no admissions criteria. All are in North Philadelphia.

"We're making investments in neighborhoods," Hite said.

Some Council members said they were disturbed by current conditions inside schools.

"We spend all of this money, and all of our youngsters can't read, write and count," Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell said.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez said some district students, such as her son, who attends Central High, are lucky enough to be in the right school with the right principal, but many are not.

"The conditions in our schools are deplorable," she said. "What we're asking principals to do is not acceptable."

Cindy Farlino, principal of Meredith Elementary in South Philadelphia, told Council what the year has been like for many schools - "what we are offering our students is far from OK."

Many cannot offer students recess because there are no adults to supervise them. Many have counselors and nurses only one or two days a week - at Meredith, when a student needs an insulin injection, Farlino must administer it herself.

Students' emotional needs are not always met. They don't have enough help picking high schools and colleges. Safety is compromised and instruction suffering, she said.

"I hope you take away that we are trying to make it work, but we can only carry it so far," Farlino said. "The thread we are holding on by is being stretched to the limit. You can throw us a rope."


INSIDE

School District to list 20 empty buildings for sale. B2.


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