Did SRC's refusal to pass budget help district?

At the SRC meeting Thursday, members decided not to approve a budget, challenging the state, city, and labor to provide more money.
At the SRC meeting Thursday, members decided not to approve a budget, challenging the state, city, and labor to provide more money. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 02, 2014

As the deadline for the Philadelphia School District to adopt a budget approached, its leaders gathered in a room to brainstorm: What could they do to make the numbers work? What solutions were open to them to avoid 1,000 layoffs, jamming 41 children into each classroom, and further cutting supports for needy students?

"Frankly, there weren't any," School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green said, recalling a conversation he and other top officials had recently.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. was the first to make the suggestion - what if the SRC didn't pass a $2.4 billion budget by May 31, the date the city's charter says a spending plan must be adopted? What if it blew the deadline on purpose?

"Dr. Hite said, 'Basically, I can't support any budget that has this little revenue,' " Green said.

The people in the room quickly agreed, Green said. The SRC would, for the first time in its history, refuse to pass a budget by the end of May. (To keep the district running, it must do so by June 30 and will meet that deadline, the chairman said.)

The district needs $216 million just to make ends meet, which would mean next year would be much like this year: no full-time nurses and counselors in every school, and shortages of basic supplies or extracurricular activities across all schools.

To get to what officials consider halfway decent shape, they need $440 million in new money from the city, state, and labor unions.

But with no taxing authority and 61 cents of every dollar spent on fixed costs, such as debt service and charter-school costs, there's little room for officials to move, they said.

In that brainstorming session a few weeks ago, Green recalled, chief financial officer Matthew Stanski told those in the room how he explained the district's problems to his young children. "Matt tells them, 'Daddy's stressed because he gets an allowance, and he needs his allowance to be raised,' " Green said.

But getting a bump in the allowance is far from a lock. The district wants a total of $195 million from the city, $150 million from the state, and $95 million from its unions.

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke on Friday said he found the SRC's decision to not pass a budget "obviously understandable," but said he thought the SRC had failed to ask the state for enough money.

He also said he remained concerned about how the district spends money, and wants a new authority created to keep watch on its finances.

Of the SRC's refusal to adopt a budget, Clarke said: "I'm not sure what this will do to move the needle on getting additional revenue."

Harrisburg could be an even tougher sell.

"This is a difficult budget year. Revenues are not coming in as anticipated," said Lynn Lawson, Gov. Corbett's spokeswoman. "We do not anticipate an increase in proposed budget amounts."

Zack Stalberg, CEO of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, said the SRC's no-budget action was "a bold move and it raises the stakes considerably" and puts pressure on the mayor and City Council to find the funds.

In the absence of the new city and state money, Hite and Green said they weren't sure what schools might look like in the fall.

"I have to think about educational environments that allow children to learn," Hite said Friday in an interview. "I don't think what we would have had to propose would have allowed any child the best opportunity to learn."

The class-size prospects alone - 37 in kindergarten through third grade, 40 in fourth through eighth grades, 41 in high school grades - are daunting.

"The Fire Department won't let us have 40 people in a class in many cases," Green said.

Some have suggested the district contemplate further radical moves, like shortening the school year.

City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez went even further.

"They're not only being responsible, but come June 30, if they don't have what they need from Council and the state, they should say they're not going to open the schools," she said. "They shouldn't open schools if they don't have enough money."

Hite said the district would explore all options.

Had the SRC passed a budget Thursday night, it would have had to almost immediately begin issuing layoff notices.

If that had happened, the district would have spent money on unemployment benefits and severance costs, and principals would have to lay off teachers they just hired.

This at least delays the layoffs but still leaves serious question marks for those on the front lines.

Robeson High School teacher Andrew Saltz applauded the SRC's decision but said it's still tough to plan for next year.

"The problem with courage in the face of a looming catastrophe," Saltz said, "is we still have a looming catastrophe."

Hite spent his Friday morning at a Special Olympics event where district students competed and supported their classmates.

He couldn't help but look at the students and feel frustrated. At Thursday's SRC meeting, Hite's frustration and sadness simmered; at one point, he removed his glasses and appeared to get choked up.

The superintendent seemed incredulous that the district again found itself in an excruciating position. He called it a "divestment."

"Success would be getting to zero," Hite said. "We're not making investments. Things are getting worse, not better."

Given that context, watching those students at the Special Olympics event hit home, Hite said.

"They deserve better than this," he said. "Everyone says education is important, but the actions don't necessarily match that."

kgraham@phillynews.com215-854-5146 @newskag www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

Inquirer staff writers Troy Graham, Jason Grant, Claudia Vargas, and Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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