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District outlines plan to close $629 million gap

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UPDATE: The School Reform Commission adopted a $2.7 billion lump sum budget Wednesday that closes a $629 million revenue gap that officials called "unprecedented" in its scope and potential impact. 

The plan includes $281 million in cuts to schools, $220 million through centrally allocated services, and $61 million -- or 13 percent -- in school budgets. These cuts will likely result in increased class size, fewer specialty teachers, fewer nurses, fewer counselors, and fewer teachers for special education students and English language learners. The average school budget will be cut more than $1 million.

Principals will get their individual school budget on Friday.

The plan counts a number of tenuous revenue assumptions, including $75 million in wage and benefits concessions from unions and reducing reimbursements to charter schools by $57 million, even though that requires a change in state law. It also includes $11 million in savings by transferring some costs to the city.

Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery said the proposed charter cuts would be "equivalent" to the reduced allocations to District-run schools.

Other cuts that could happen if any of the budget assumptions don't pan out include a reduction in full-day kindergarten in some schools, elimination of summer school, and an end to gifted and talented programs.

Not mentioned in either revenue scenario are potential cuts in the District's large privatized alternative school network and whether the longer school days and years will persist at the 18 Promise Academies, which are "turnaround" schools being run by the District.

"This is not a budget that the management of the District endorses," said Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch, "or that we think is good for the children of Philadelphia or good for the city or the state." He explained that the District is legally obligated to adopt a balanced "lump sum" budget by the end of March.

The $629 million gap is up from $465 million in the District's most recent public statements. They hadn't previously included negotiated salary increases and an increase in debt service costs. The gap represents a full 20 percent of the District's current budget.

The budget slashes the central office staff in half -- by 413 people -- to save $52 million. Nunery said that such layoff notices could go out within weeks, although they are hoping to offer incentives for retirement and voluntary termination.

Other planned cuts will come in food services and in transportation for some non-public school students.

The District invited reporters to a briefing on the budget plan, but did not inform them of the SRC meeting immediately before at which the lump sum budget was adopted.

Earlier in the day, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had sent an email to District staff outlining "phase three" of the budget balancing plan.

The email describes the phase three measures as follows:

  1. Reduce central office operating budgets by 50% from the originally stated 30%; this includes reducing staff by 50%, which may include vacancies
  2. Reduce school based budgets
  3. Reduce central allocations to schools
  4. Reduce core programs and strategic initiatives (e.g.; Gifted and Talented, Music, and Art)
  5. Reduce full day kindergarten to half day kindergarten in many of our schools ($55M reduction in the Commonwealth's Accountability Block Grant)
  6. Renegotiate Contract with Unions
  7. Reduce 2012-SLAM (Summer Learning and More)
  8. Reduce Athletics
  9. Decrease School Nurses
  10. Reduce Special Education Liaisons

Jerry Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, said that his organization would lead a march to Harrisburg with students and others on April 26 to protest the budget of Gov. Tom Corbett, which cut $1.1 billion in education aid statewide, $292 million of it in Philadelphia. Loss of state and federal stimulus dollars is the primary reason for the budget gap.

He said Corbett was "attacking public education with a chainsaw."

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.