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How do you fix the District's budget crisis?

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The School District is in bleak fiscal straits. Staring at the possibility of a deficit of $242 million by the end of 2013-14, District leaders are looking to the city and state to contribute $180 million in aid while also looking to reduce labor costs by 10 percent.

As City Council prepares for school budget hearings next week, the Notebook asked prominent folks in Philadelphia education to offer their take on what else could be done to address the gap. What solutions to the District's budget crisis are there, beyond the plea to the city and state for more funding and the plan to cut employee salaries and benefits? We received the following four responses. Comments are welcome.

 

Craig Robbins, executive director of ACTION United

First of all, start by replacing the $200 million in state funds stripped from Philadelphia and adopt a fair funding formula.

Second: The state needs to fund education adequately and equitably. We rely too heavily on local taxes in Pennsylvania, which is why we see twice as much per student spent in Lower Merion as compared to Philadelphia.

Third: Close tax loopholes that allow 70 percent of Pennsylvania corporations to pay no state taxes. Tax gas drilling. 

Fourth: Pass Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez's Use and Occupancy bill that would offset the huge tax break that big downtown businesses are getting from the recalculation of property tax rates. That will raise $40 million to $50 million for schools.  

Fifth: Restore the state's charter school reimbursment to the District, and close charters that are underperforming or that create barriers to entry.  

Finally, we need our philanthropic community to step up for the common good. We challenge the Philadelphia School Partnership, which is raising $100 million, to use those funds to help us rebuild a great Philadelphia public school system that works for all children, not just those who make it into charters. 

 

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth

The Philadelphia School District was the biggest loser when in 2011 the state cut $1 billion in funds for education and it put an end to the sound school-funding formula adopted by the General Assembly in 2008. As a result, the School District is poised to cut teacher salaries, eliminate nearly 100 music teachers, put an end to all sports and extracurricular programming, and cut many counselors -- at the end of the day, the District will have 1 nurse for every 1,500 students. 

The state legislature is considering further business tax reductions that are purported to create jobs in the years ahead. But a tax break strategy that is not coupled with an investment strategy that boosts the skills of our students is likely to mean that tax breaks pad the bottom line and do little to grow economies or incomes. 

The legislature should take a balanced approached that over three years restores the devastating $1 billion school-funding cut and returns to a fair and predictable school-funding formula. 

Failure on the part of the state to repair the damage it has caused will mean that more of the burden falls on City Council. Philadelphia residents already bear a disproportionate tax burden when the property tax and wage taxes are combined. But unfortunately, that’s not reason enough for Council to ignore the real budget vise that the District is in or fail to come to its aid.  

 

Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education

In 2007, when the District faced a now-quaint $73 million budget hole, the School Reform Commission went into immediate action to limit spending and institute strict financial controls and reviews. They halted new programs, required executive approval for all expenditures over $35,000, and reduced the Limited Contracting Authority approvals to $15,000. There's little indication that's happening in a significant way today.

Last week alone, the District approved an $11 million contract for Pearson and $15 million to outsource a new cyber school program. Last fall, the District turned over $805,000 in Title II money (which could go toward reduced class size and counselors) to a contract with The New Teacher Project around teacher recruitment for jobs we don’t even have, and approved a $1 million increase in a single-bid food-services contract even though that contractor has fewer students to serve.

The District cannot assume that state money, or city money for that matter, will come easily without significant investment in coalition-building. One of Philadelphia’s great failures is to lone-ranger its dealings both with Council and Harrisburg. The stronger tactic is to build alliances with districts and education supporters across the state. This type of alliance helped win the historic Rendell-era funding formula. In a political environment that is so jaded about Philadelphia's needs, a coalition approach is needed more than ever.

 

State Rep. James Roebuck, Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee

We could restore an estimated $175 million to Philadelphia's traditional public schools by passing my comprehensive, bipartisan charter and cyber charter school reform bill (H.B. 934). More details and a report documenting the need for these reforms can be found on my website.

In addition, while the governor is proposing to restore just $90 million statewide of the roughly $900 million he cut from K-12 education in 2011, it’s absolutely appropriate to push for even more of those cuts to be restored, through legislation such as a more reasonable Marcellus Shale gas drilling tax like other states have, as well as closing the Delaware loophole for corporate taxes.

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David Limm

@limmdavid
David is a former online editor of the Notebook.