SRC eschews 'doomsday' vote

Jennine Miller , Project HOME's director of advocacy and public policy, speaks at a rally yesterday at Thomas Paine Plaza, across from City Hall, demanding no more cuts.
Jennine Miller , Project HOME's director of advocacy and public policy, speaks at a rally yesterday at Thomas Paine Plaza, across from City Hall, demanding no more cuts.
Posted: May 30, 2014

IN AN unprecedented move, the School Reform Commission opted yesterday not to vote on a proposed "doomsday" budget that would have required more than 1,000 layoffs, significantly increased class sizes, reduced school police and special-education services.

Under the city charter, the school district is required to adopt a budget by May 30. Superintendent William Hite said the district needs a clearer answer from city and state lawmakers on the district's request for an additional $216 million before it can come up with a realistic spending plan.

"As a manager, I have to present a budget, but as an educator, I do not support this proposed budget," an emotional Hite said. "Until there is more certainty around revenue from the state and the city [I am recommending] that the SRC do not take action on this budget."

The SRC backed the move, which drew a standing ovation from parents, students and education advocates who packed the auditorium at the district's headquarters on North Broad Street.

SRC chairman Bill Green said school principals and staff are "holding things together with duct tape" as a result of previous cuts, and that the current level is not sustainable. He said that passing the proposed budget, which cut even further into basic operations, would have given the impression that such a plan was viable.

"There aren't any gimmicks or quick fixes or secret slush funds or other things we can do to fix our budget problems," Green said. "There's no fat or flesh left to cut."

The district's proposed $2.5 billion budget includes an extra $120 million from the city's extension of the sales-tax hike, but does not factor in an additional $75 million for which district officials and supporters have been lobbying City Council. It also does not assume any extra money from the state or savings from labor concessions - items the district strongly hopes will materialize in the next month.

Without an additional $216 million, the district said it would be forced to lay off more than 1,000 employees - including about 800 teachers - resulting in average class sizes of 33 pupils in elementary schools and 41 in high schools. Additionally, high school students would have to walk up to 2 miles - from the current 1.5 miles - facilities staff would only be able to respond to emergencies and support for special-education students would be reduced, barely meeting minimum federal requirements.

Parents applauded the SRC for taking a stand, and pledged to continue to fight for more funding. Some urged a repeat of last year when Hite threatened not to open schools in September unless more money was provided.

"We are going to go down to whomever and whatever it takes to make sure [elected officials] are held accountable for what is happening to our schools," said Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education.

Green said he is not sure what ramifications, if any, the district could face by not passing the budget by May 30.

"The school district has never done it," Green noted. "June 30, that is the true deadline because if taxes can't be in place by June 30" they can't be levied for the year starting July 1.

District officials said the $216 million would allow them to maintain current services, leaving many schools without full-time nurses, counselors or librarians. They are asking for $440 million, which they claim would begin to undo previous cuts and allow Hite and his administration to begin implementing improvements.

City Council president Darrell Clarke has said city lawmakers would provide increased funding to the district as they have done in recent years, and would lobby the General Assembly for a local cigarette tax that would raise another $75 million.

Green said the SRC will reconvene on or before June 30 to adopt a budget, "which hopefully will provide the resources needed to provide a great education for our students."

On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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