Job losses were heavy among teachers, counselors, assistant principals, supportive services assistants, and secretaries. Only 126 counseling positions were restored by the start of school; last year the District had 362 counselors. Nearly half the schools in the city will be dependent on a team of 16 roving counselors. Schools were understaffed for much of the summer and are dealing with the loss of multiple key personnel. Class sizes are larger, and the year starts with 100 split-grade classrooms. However, most of the 1,200 noontime aides initially laid off have been rehired.
Wasn’t there a plan to avoid this crisis?
The District had hoped to close its $304 million gap and avert cuts through a combination of new revenues and labor concessions, but instead had to put in place a “doomsday budget” with more than $250 million in cuts. Superintendent William Hite had asked the state and city in March to come up with a combined $180 million in new revenues for the District. But Gov. Corbett’s June “rescue plan” contributed little new revenue for this year and put strings on a $45 million grant so it has not yet been received. At best, the District is now hoping to end up with $112 million in new revenues beyond what was in its budget on May 31. Most of that will come from city taxpayers.
Hite’s plan had also called for major concessions from District staff – $133 million in savings, which represents a 10 percent overall cut in pay and benefits. The teachers’ union is being asked to produce most of those savings but has said that its members cannot afford such deep cuts. Any savings achieved could be used to restore the cuts made this summer.
What was in Gov. Corbett’s rescue plan?
For this year, his plan included a meager $2 million increase in basic education funding and a $45 million grant that the governor says is contingent on labor concessions. The big ticket item in the plan is for future years: The state legislature gave the city permission to continue charging its residents an extra 1 percent in sales tax – a surcharge that was scheduled to expire next year. The first $120 million annually in proceeds from this surcharge can be devoted to the schools, starting in 2014. For this year, the legislation included provisions for the city to borrow $50 million against the future proceeds from the tax. Mayor Nutter wants to proceed with borrowing, but City Council opposes that, saying that the city should instead take control of and sell vacant District properties to raise $50 million. Either way, the District is now counting on the $50 million.
So what happened to the budget gap?
Technically it has been eliminated. By putting in place its doomsday budget and planning to spend down its modest reserves, the District balanced its budget for 2013-14. Officials now project that there will be enough money to operate through June 2014 and end the fiscal year with zero fund balance. But they would like to restore staff and programs that have been cut, and they say they cannot afford to do that now because they will not spend funds that aren’t secured yet.
What’s the District’s plan now?
The District has so far restored $83 million in cuts with funds secured since June. Now its strategy is to get deep financial concessions from the teachers’ union and three other unions and use the savings to rehire additional staff that were lost. Officials say the priority would be to restore instructional staff. Restoring the 156 counselors who were cut from the operating budget would cost $17 million. Instrumental music teachers and sports were restored for the fall; bringing them back for the whole year would cost nearly $8 million more.
Whether the District intends to impose changes to the pay scale or other contract terms on its unions if it cannot reach agreement at the bargaining table is unknown. Such a move would surely prompt a court battle.
Can’t anyone else come to the aid of the schools?
Advocacy groups and some local elected officials have been pressuring the governor to release the $45 million grant, but the Corbett administration is adamant that it wants to see a reformed teachers’ union contract first. Other than the proposal to sell District properties, there has been little movement in City Hall to identify new strategies to raise funds for schools this school year.
At the state level, the legislature failed to vote in June on authorizing a proposed new cigarette tax approved by Philadelphia City Council. That proposal could be considered in the fall but faces opposition from anti-tax forces. In the long term, advocates hope that the state will re-establish a funding formula to aid struggling districts across the state. But that won’t happen in time for this school year.