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Addressing the District deficit

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This guest blog comes from from James H. Lytle, professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education (GSE) and former School District administrator.


The School District of Philadelphia has acknowledged a potential shortfall in its  2011-12 fiscal year budget approaching $500 million. The looming question is how the District intends to deal with this challenge. My impression, based on discussions with various informed and semi-informed individuals, is that there is no adequate plan at this point.

There have been the predictable central office meetings to review the budget on a program and line-item basis, but the result hasn’t come close to the necessary total.

The approach to date seems to have two primary elements:

  1. lobby the state legislature for additional funding, and
  2. protect Imagine 2014.

The prospect for sympathy at the state level is less than zero. Governor Corbett has made it very clear that deficit reduction and a balanced budget are his priorities, and a Republican-controlled legislature is likely to support him. No one, including the SRC and the mayor, appears to have the courage to insist that the District develop a balanced budget scenario, and the superintendent wants to protect her signature programs.

I appreciate that the District is in a hard place. Until the governor and legislature determine funding for the District, and deal with charter caps, vouchers, etc., it’s going to be difficult to project what state funding levels will be. But that does not absolve the District of its responsibility for contingency planning.

The District has already admitted that even in the most draconian scenario, it cannot reduce central expenditures by more than $100 million. The reason is straightforward. In school districts most of the money is in schools.

The district has also allowed as to how it has 70,000 empty seats, and needs to consider consolidating and closing schools. But the timetable for that process has yet to be announced, and the District has been appropriately conservative in projecting savings from school closings.

The first indication of whether the District is ready to get real will come within the next few weeks when school principals are given their 2011-12 school budgets. A rough calculation would be that on average school budgets will need to be reduced by at least a million dollars per school (adjusted up or down for enrollments). That would generate somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million in savings (265 schools @ $1,000,000 = $265,000,000+).

The school budget reduction process is complicated by the fact that certain programs, most notably Empowerment Schools, have been centrally managed. Participating schools (about 100) have had teachers and other support positions added to their school staffing without these positions being reflected in their budgets, so the size of school-level reductions will interact with Empowerment and other centrally-supported program reductions.

A strategic question is how much control principals and school leadership teams will be given in determining the reductions. If the central office takes the paternalistic route and reserves all decisions to itself, there will be disgruntlement and resistance in the ranks. If principals are given control, they will be able to manage reductions in relation to what they see as the priorities for their schools.

A problem for principals, however, especially in elementary schools, is that the total number of teaching positions that will need to be cut is so large that there is little hope for “protecting” low-seniority teachers who are desirable faculty members.

Schools currently pay $90,000 per teacher, including benefits. A quick calculation indicates that eliminating 2,000 teaching positions saves $180 million (although low seniority teachers actually cost last than the average, so many more than 2,000 positions would need to be cut to get to $180 million). Clearly school-level administrative and support staff positions will also need to be cut. When tenure, certification, and system seniority factors are considered, the prospect for an extraordinarily complex school staffing problem is evident.

June 30 is not far off. The financial planning and human resource management challenges that need to be addressed before then are extraordinary. If the superintendent is serious about wanting to maintain the continuous improvement of the district, she, the SRC, district leadership, and the School District community are going to have to lead and think their way through these challenges.


The guest blog section is a place for people, other than our regular cast of bloggers, to share their views. (See our "About Our Blog" note at the top, right.) Got something you'd like to write about? Email us with a pitch, idea, or a completed post. We're just launching this feature so feedback and suggestions are greatly appreciated.

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