Lawyers, officials weigh in on SRC's decision to withhold school budget

Posted: June 01, 2014

Some listeners jumped up and cheered Thursday night when the School Reform Commission took a bold and unprecedented step, declaring it would not pass a budget by the City Charter's end-of-May deadline.

Making a budget by Saturday, amped-up and frustrated school officials said, would mean putting their weight behind an underfunded plan that would force "devastating and unacceptable" cuts to Philadelphia's already beleaguered schools, dish out 800 teacher layoffs, and perhaps ultimately put children's safety at risk.

But was the SRC's refusal legal? And can it be successfully challenged, in court or otherwise? These are fair questions that do not have clear answers, lawyers and past and present city officials said Friday. Still, they drummed home several points that shed light on the soundness of the SRC's move, and on any risks involved.

The end of the fiscal year, June 30, is by far the more important deadline, they said. If the SRC failed to pass a budget by then, school services would begin to shut down because the district would not be allowed to spend money.

Though court action to force passage of a budget could be tried, several lawyers said a judge would be unlikely to hem in a school system that is just trying to buy 30 more days to come up with more cash to teach children. Besides, they asked, what is the "injury" to a parent, student, or employee who has to wait 30 more days to find out about the budget?

As lawyer Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia said, the SRC has been stuck in a seemingly untenable budget-making situation for years: It has often been asked to come up with a final budget before it knows exactly how much money it may get from the city and state, which often pass their budgets June 30 or later.

"The truth is, I don't think anybody knows" if a lawsuit could force the SRC to pass a budget on time under the charter, Churchill said. "It hasn't been tried or done when the city has not passed its budget on time.

"What is to be gained by the parent or the taxpayer by forcing the commission to act when it doesn't have the information [officials] say is necessary to act with any good result?" he asked.

"I think any court would be very reluctant to impose its judgment" in this situation, he added, while saying the charter appears to impose no penalties if a governmental body fails to adhere to its budget date, which the charter specifies is "30 days before the end of the fiscal year."

At Thursday's SRC meeting, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the schools needed $216 million more just to get to this year's service levels, which he called inadequate, and $440 million more from the city and state and from labor concessions to open schools in decent shape.

SRC Chairman Bill Green, meanwhile, warned that along with teacher layoffs, class sizes could balloon to 41, and special education could be cut.

"We will continue to focus our energy and attention on securing the needed funding for our schools from both the city and state," Green said. Mayor Nutter swiftly followed with a statement that the SRC had taken "the only responsible action . . . given the uncertainty surrounding their revenues."

On Friday, Green pledged to deliver the district's budget by June 30.

Lawyer Mark A. Aronchick, who was city solicitor in the 1980s, said the SRC's decision sought to balance the district's multiple responsibilities - providing safe and meaningful education, upholding the mandates of the public school code, and arriving at a budget in time.

"It's an aggressive legal position, yes," Aronchick said. "But that doesn't mean that they are are not acting responsibly and prudently." He said the school code contains "all kinds of requirements . . . to run thorough and adequate schools . . . and the resources at the moment don't enable them to act in that manner."

Courts have forced city officials to reverse themselves before. In 2008, when Nutter tried to save money by closing 11 branch libraries, three City Council members sued, and a judge ordered the libraries reopened.

One of those Council members was Green. But on Friday, he said he and other school officials were mindful of the risks in choosing not to deliver a budget on time.

"We weren't going to pass a budget that Dr. Hite said he can't manage to," Green said. "Whatever the risks are, we assumed them after speaking to our advisers, and certainly there are risks associated with that, but I'm not going to speak them into being."


Inquirer staff writer Kristen Graham contributed to this article.

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