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Community responds to the District budget shortfall

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As the District grapples with how to slash $629 million in spending for next year to balance its budget, activists continue to condemn the education funding cuts proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett.

But the budget crisis has prompted a variety of other responses by local advocates and activists, including ideas on how to reduce the impact on schools and proposals to shift more power to schools in the budget-cutting process.

Barring additional revenues, the gap will require eliminating a full 20 percent of the District’s $3.2 billion spending package in the coming school year. The District’s initial plan calls for $281 million of the cuts to come out of school budgets – an average hit of more than $1 million per school. School budgets were due to be released Friday.

The School District has plenty of company inside and beyond Pennsylvania as it deals with the fallout from a national movement to cut government spending. But Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania districts that are most dependent on state aid are particularly hard hit.

The governor’s $1.19 billion reduction in preK-12 education funding slams the District with a quarter of the total cutbacks ($293 million), even though the system has just over one-tenth of the state’s students.

According to an analysis by the Education Law Center, the reductions in state aid to Philadelphia represent a loss of $1,406 per pupil to the District. That’s not as bad as the $1,545 per pupil reduction in the York City School District and nowhere near the $2,542 loss faced by Chester-Upland in Delaware County.

But in contrast, Radnor’s schools, although well-funded primarily through local property taxes, will lose a mere $76 per pupil in state aid.

Evaluating the governor’s budget in a scorecard, ELC gave Corbett failing grades.

“Corbett cuts funding for the neediest schools more than others,” it said.

The advocacy groups that fought for and won the creation of a need-based school funding formula under Gov. Rendell are struggling to preserve those changes. They argue that the state saw significant academic gains accompanying recent infusions of state aid, and those gains are in jeopardy.

Corbett’s cuts are also part of a broader strategy – to reshape the education landscape by creating more charter schools, offering vouchers to students in low-performing schools, changing teacher tenure laws, and instituting merit pay. Adoption of new charter policies or approval of a voucher bill could widen the already overwhelming District budget gap.

The groups fighting to maintain the increased education allotments do seem to have public opinion on their side. A Franklin and Marshall poll on Corbett’s budget plan found overwhelming opposition to the proposed cuts in public school funding. Respondents were asked which of 14 measures they support “as a way for the state of Pennsylvania to balance its budget.” Only 19 percent of respondents chose, “Reducing state funding for local school districts,” the lowest response for any of the options.

“Cutting services isn’t the answer – we need more revenue,” said Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. She said the state could raise funds via reducing corporate loopholes and eliminating the tax benefit for vendors who pay their tax on time. She also called for a tax on natural gas drilling, and a tax on smokeless tobacco. On the latter, she said, “We are the only state that is not doing this and the industry is wrongfully targeting kids – so it’s the right thing to do.”

These are some of the same measures being advocated statewide by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Wednesday’s “Fund our schools, not prisons” march and rally in Center City represents another response to the state budget plan, challenging Corbett’s 11 percent spending increase for the Department of Corrections when education aid is being decimated.

As part of another campaign supported by the School District, called “Protect Public Education,” buses will be headed to Harrisburg on April 5 and again on April 26 to oppose the education funding cuts proposed by Corbett.

While the governor’s budget is the primary focus of many activists, others are calling on the District to rethink its budget-cutting strategy.

“We really need a thoughtful and strategic approach that looks at multiple areas,” said parent activist and Notebook blogger Helen Gym in a Philly.com online chat on Thursday. “The District needs to put out more choices on the table than more money from the state and essential services to schools.

”For example, the District should publish a list of all its contracts. We have millions of dollars going out the door to outside entities. And if it's a choice between a teacher, a librarian, or some testing company in Duluth, I want those options for public review."

A District spokesperson said that professional service contracts total $120 million in the operating budget and make up a similar percentage of its consolidated budget, which adds in categorical programs like Title I.

Gym also argued that the District’s budget gap cannot entirely be placed at Gov. Corbett’s feet.

One piece of ammunition for that point of view is in the documents published Wednesday as the School Reform Commission approved a lump sum budget. The District for the first time acknowledged publicly that despite a looming crunch, it spent down $66 million in District reserves and surplus to fund the 2010-11 budget – funds that are no longer available in the coming fiscal year.

Some, including retired administrator and University of Pennsylvania education professor James “Torch” Lytle, argue that a critical step the District can take right now is to give principals and schools much greater latitude in dealing with budget reductions.

Speaking at a Teacher Action Group (TAG) Forum on March 23, Lytle urged, “Let the people on the ground make the decisions.”

While calling for this shift in the point of decision-making, he added that principals need to be honest and transparent with staff and community. “If you’re not honest, I guarantee it will be ugly."

The District’s current plan is to close the budget gap through the following measures:

  • Central office staffing reductions - $52 million
  • Central office allocations to schools - $220 million
  • Reductions to school budgets - $61 million
  • Operational support to schools (facilities, food service, transportation, utilities) - $85 million
  • Early retirement, facilities planning and other efficiencies - $69 million
  • Transferring costs to the city - $11 million
  • Renegotiating union contracts - $75 million
  • Reductions in payments to charters - $57 million. 

Key upcoming District budget dates:

Wed., April 27: SRC budget hearing (at close of afternoon meeting)
Early May (TBA): District community meetings on its budget
Tues., May 10, 10 a.m.: City Council hearings on District budget
Wed., May 11, 1 p.m.: City Council hears public testimony
Tues., May 31, 5 p.m.: SRC meets to approve budget

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Paul Socolar

@PaulSocolar
Paul is the Notebook's former editor and publisher and also one of its founders in 1994.