Phila. schools to open on schedule, but with deep budget cuts

William R. Hite (left) and William Green address school plans.
William R. Hite (left) and William Green address school plans. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff)
Posted: August 17, 2014

City schools will open as scheduled Sept. 8, but with deep cuts to student transportation, school police and building maintenance, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Friday.

Hite ordered $32 million in budget cuts to ensure enough cash for classes to begin on time, and he said that without action in Harrisburg by Oct. 1, more than 1,000 layoffs and further reductions to school budgets will follow in October.

"We don't know if there's light at the end of the tunnel," a somber Hite said at a news conference.

"We are on the precipice, with the fate of not just the school district, but the city and the broader region at stake," said School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green.

Staring down an $81 million deficit, banking on millions from a cigarette tax that has not yet passed, school leaders have spent the summer mulling whether to shorten the school year for the district's 130,000 students.

Ultimately, Hite said, "for the sake of minimizing disruptions for families and for the sake of educating children," he made the call to open.

He was moved by assurances from Gov. Corbett and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai that the cigarette tax would be top priority in September, Hite said. And he said failing to open schools might exacerbate the district's woes, prompting more students to flee to charters.

Hite hopes the cuts he ordered are temporary. But for now, the district will save money by not filling vacant school police jobs; cleaning schools less frequently; offering fewer spots in a program for students at risk of dropping out or who have dropped out; and cutting access to free transportation for students who live less than two miles from their schools, a reduction that affects about 7,500 district, charter and nonpublic students.

More cuts are coming to the district's already depleted central office, too. Twenty people who provide direct support to schools will be laid off by Sept. 1.

"The actions we are announcing today are serious and will have an impact on students, families, and staff," Green said. "We continue to have to take steps that are not fair and do not reflect how much we value our students, teachers and other staff."

The SRC chair said the district cannot solve its long-term problems with cuts, and expressed frustration that Hite is again having to make reductions.

In the past several years, the district has shed 5,000 jobs, closed 31 schools and reduced administrative costs to less than 3 percent of its total $2 billion budget.

Officials acknowledge that they are building several high-risk assumptions into their savings plan, even if the cigarette tax comes through. They're banking on several vacant schools now on the market will fetch good prices, that they can negotiate better prices with some district vendors, and that the state does not pay for charter school enrollments over district-authorized levels.

School leaders emphasized that the legislature's action on the cigarette tax - expected earlier this summer but postponed after lawmakers could not muster agreement on the measure - was essential.

But they also know it's not assured.

"It's been promised several times," Hite said of the tax. Just a few weeks ago, officials celebrated when they thought the tax was a lock to pass in July.

Hite and Green said they were not just looking to Harrisburg for funds, though. In strong terms, they renewed a call for concessions from the teachers' union, whose members have been working without a contract since last August.

Without significant benefits contributions, Green said the SRC would use its powers under the state takeover law to impose terms on the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

"That is not a threat, just a statement of fact," Green said. "We will be forced to act."

Jerry Jordan, PFT president, said in an interview that it is "unfair" to count on his members as a funding source, and noted that he publicly said last summer that the PFT would agree to a wage freeze and benefits contributions.

"But the district chose not to take advantage of our offer," Jordan said. "They could have had those savings for a full year, and that would have closed this deficit."

School leaders said they were taking off the table their previous demand for across-the-board wage cuts. But Jordan said the district was still insisting on furlough days, which amounts to a salary cut.

Corbett, watching Philadelphia's Taney Dragons win their first game at the Little League World Series in Williamsport on Friday, said he knew the threat of school not opening on time was real.

He spoke with Hite late on Thursday, the governor said, and the superintendent's mind was not yet made up.

Corbett said he was "very pleased" that classes would begin on time, but he also hammered the PFT, saying that it must pitch in to help ease the district's financial crisis.

Mayor Nutter said he understood Hite's decision and the need to make temporary cuts.

Philadelphia's schoolchildren, Nutter said, "will only get a decent level of education when adults get back to work and vote for the cigarette tax as quickly as possible."

After Hite's announcement, there was anger and a sense of disappointment from many quarters.

Eileen Duffey, a school nurse and frequent district critic, said she was "angry and upset" going into yet another school year in which there will be fewer resources for students.

"Last year, it was absolutely horrible," Duffey said. "This year, I'm hearing it's going to be even worse."

Chanel Smith, soon to be a junior at Edison High, stood on the pavement in front of the district's North Broad Street headquarters, huddled with a group of students from Youth United for Change, a student organizing group.

Last school year, classes were too big, said Smith, 16. There weren't enough books to go around. There wasn't enough paper.

"I'm glad that they're starting on time," Smith said. "But I'm mad that we don't have the resources we need."

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Inquirer staff writers Matt Breen and Chris Hepp contibuted to this article.

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