School officials meet again with Council members on funds

Posted: June 13, 2014

With time ticking away to solve the School District of Philadelphia's latest budget crisis, district officials went to a skeptical City Council Wednesday with a new last-minute plea for funding.

"We'll be straight about it," said Sophie Bryan, chief of staff for the School Reform Commission. "We are asking for every dollar we can possibly get."

The plea came on a day when about 100 high school students left classes and joined teachers, parents, and activists in a march down Broad Street chanting, "S.O.S. - save our schools."

Specifically, the district asked the city to borrow $55 million for the schools and allow the district to keep the proceeds from the sale of 27 shuttered school buildings.

The district needs some of that money for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and wants to carry over the rest to apply toward next year's projected $216 million shortfall.

Borrowing money has been on the table since last year, when Council balked at the idea and came up with its own plan: Give the district $50 million in exchange for empty buildings, which could be sold to pay back the city.

Mayor Nutter signed a bill authorizing that approach, but the administration and the district shrugged off the plan.

"We already approved $50 million," Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. said Wednesday in a committee hearing with School District officials. "You don't want to do it that way."

Bryan said the district was now asking to borrow money as well as keep the proceeds of the building sales because of a "desperate fiscal situation" that could lead to 800 teacher layoffs and 40 students per class.

"We get that it's not what we talked about" last year," she said. "We're not trying to be cute. There's a big hole next year."

The Council committee eventually approved a bill allowing the city to borrow $27 million - about half what the district asked for, but enough to pay the bills for the rest of the fiscal year.

Students and activists have been staging nearly daily events around the city. As well as chanting, some held signs that read, "It's Our Money, We Need It Now."

The activist group Youth United for Change distributed fliers at nine high schools, urging students to meet at the district building on North Broad at noon.

Edison High School freshman Katherine Garcia left her history class to join the protests.

"It's really frustrating. We don't have the supplies we need," Garcia said, calling Edison's class sizes "ridiculous."

Edison junior Calvin Wongus spoke of his horror upon moving to the city from Westchester County, N.Y., where he said he received a quality education. "The fact that we have to fight for every penny that we get for our schools every year is unfair," he said.

In a Council ever critical of the district's financial stewardship, the focus Wednesday remained on strained relations.

"Council feels like sometimes the School District doesn't really have to answer to us," said Councilman Mark Squilla. "But they really do want to work with us when the funding time is up."

In an interview, Council President Darrell L. Clarke said he thought the district had not made a serious effort to sell its empty buildings - that the district always intended to return to the plan to borrow money.

"I think they're playing games with children's lives," Clarke said. "Take the $50 million that Council appropriated . . . as opposed to dragging this thing out to the last moment."

The district has reached an agreement to sell six buildings and is near a deal on several others. The district also fielded 14 offers on 20 buildings this week.

Because of paying off debt and other costs, Bryan said, the district would net just $60 million if all the buildings were sold at asking price.

Clarke said Council was not told last year that the buildings were carrying so much debt.

"Maybe if they had made that known to us, there would have been another strategy," he said. "You have to have some concerns about the way they're running the business up there."

Bryan, though, said the district may not be able to fill the $216 million shortfall, and she noted that some Council members have been urging a Plan B.

If the city can borrow as much as $55 million, she said, it should "not leave any money on the table."

215-854-2730 @troyjgraham

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