SRC refuses to pass budget with 'unacceptable' cuts

Posted: May 31, 2014

Taking an unexpected, unprecedented stand, the School Reform Commission refused Thursday night to pass a 2014-15 budget. Its officials said they would deliberately violate the City Charter by not approving a spending plan.

A visibly frustrated Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he could not recommend the $2.4 billion budget "as educationally sound or economically prudent for the city or state."

"Our severely under-resourced school system threatens the future of one of America's greatest cities," Hite said. He said the district needed $216 million more just to get to this year's service levels, which he called inadequate, and $440 million more from the city, state, and labor unions to open schools in decent shape.

SRC Chairman Bill Green said "devastating and unacceptable" cuts would result if more money was not forthcoming - at least 800 teacher layoffs, class sizes swelling to up to 41, cuts to special and alternative education services, and more.

Green said he did not want to adopt a budget and "give anyone the impression that the cuts it contains are feasible or acceptable." Instead, "we will continue to focus our energy and attention on securing the needed funding for our schools from both the city and state."

Mayor Nutter, who had been notified of the SRC's plans, said the commission made "a very smart" move by declining to pass a budget.

"This was the only responsible action they could take given the uncertainty surrounding their revenues," Nutter said in a statement Thursday night.

Green said he did not know what the ramifications might be, if any, for violating the City Charter, which requires the Philadelphia School District to adopt a budget by May 31. City Council, which has the same requirement, has missed its deadline for several years running with no penalties.

"We just did it," Green said. "The School District has never done this, and it's never been tested as a practical matter."

Green said it would have been "irresponsible to move forward without the necessary resources to actually educate children."

Council has pledged at least $120 million, but the district is asking for $195 million in total from the city, $150 million from the state, and $95 million from unions. None of that money - Hite likened it to "an allowance," as the district is unable to raise money on its own - is assured.

Hite referred to the "disinvestment" in city public schools, and said principals had told him that without an infusion of cash, they won't have money for such things as copy paper, might not have room for all the students they will be required to jam into a single classroom, and "can't guarantee children will be safe."

Principals and teachers are already stretched almost to the breaking point, with many schools lacking full-time counselors and nurses, after-school activities, and money for basic supplies. Hite and Green said the conditions could not be sustained.

"Since my arrival two years ago, I have become increasingly troubled by what is happening in our schools and to our students and staff," the superintendent said, noting there were not enough supports for children or adults in buildings. "I hear the same message from parents, teachers, principals, students, and other staff - that this is no way to operate our schools."

Matthew Stanski, the district's chief financial officer, said there was very little room for the district to make cuts. Of every $100 it has, it has control over just $39. The rest goes to fixed costs, such as salaries, benefits, debt service, and pensions.

"Can we cut anywhere else but schools?" Green asked Stanski.

"No," Stanski said.

Adopting a budget Thursday night, Stanski and Hite said, would have triggered a series of actions that would have cost the district more money and been disruptive to schools - namely, layoffs, which would mean unemployment and severance costs. It would also have created churn in a system already beset with it.

"It also creates a dynamic within the organization that is unhealthy," Hite said.

When Green announced the SRC would not consider the budget as presented, a cheer went up in the room. Some people rose to their feet and clapped.

"Thank you," school counselor Ruth Garcia said, "for your stand."

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said in a statement the SRC's move was "the only moral option."

"As significant as tonight's action - or inaction - by the SRC is, it is ultimately a simple acknowledgment that our schools and educators simply have no more to give," Jordan said.

Even Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education and a frequent blistering critic of the district, offered a "heartfelt thank-you" to Hite and Green "for the courageous stand you just took."

Susan Clampet-Lundquist, parent of a child in the district, urged people to think of "radical and creative" ways to find more money for schools.

"How would that look on the national news if Philadelphia schools did not open until November, or if they closed in March?" she said.

Clampet-Lundquist and others seemed energized by the SRC's move, and said they would advocate with renewed vigor for funding for the district.

Green said the SRC must reconvene on or before June 30 to pass a budget.

The SRC also voted Thursday to give New Foundations Charter School in the Northeast a new, five-year charter, and to allow a grade reconfiguration at Maritime Academy Charter School, also in the Northeast. It will become a K-12 school with no changes to its enrollment cap.

The commission was due to consider renewals for Esperanza Academy Charter and Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter, but both were postponed.

The SRC also heard from two school nurses who addressed the recent death of Sebastian Gerena, a 7-year-old who fell ill at Jackson Elementary School, where there is no full-time nurse.

Sebastian died of a congenital heart defect. It is not clear whether a school nurse's presence could have prevented his death.

"More deaths will occur," district nurse Peg Devine said, "unless you increase certified nurse presence in Philadelphia schools."

kgraham@phillynews.com215-854-5146 @newskag

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