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SRC won't adopt 'Doomsday II' budget

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Updated | 11:30 p.m.

The School Reform Commission declined Thursday to adopt a budget proposal that would raise class sizes as high as 41, cut 800 teachers, reduce special education services to their bare minimum, prevent all but the most basic building maintenance, and make further cuts in services like counselors and nurses.

The SRC made the decision even though failing to adopt a budget before the end of May violates the city charter.

"Rather than adopting a 'Doomsday II' budget – and give anyone the impression that the cuts it contains are feasible or acceptable – we are going to not act on the budget tonight," announced SRC Chairman Bill Green. "Instead, we will continue to focus our energy and attention on securing the needed funding for our schools."

Although Philadelphia public schools have been in dire straits before, this is the first time in recent history that a District governing body has taken such a step, indicating how this financial dilemma is worse than ever. Green said he did expect the SRC to meet again before the end of the fiscal year on June 30 to adopt a revised budget with additional revenues.

The SRC was acting on the recommendation of Superintendent William Hite, who decried the state's and city's failure to provide the District with recurring, sustainable funding for a second year in a row.

"Running schools this way for another year is unsustainable and does an extreme disservice to our students and our families," Hite said, his voice betraying his simmering frustration. 

The $2.4 billion budget, presented at the meeting by District Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski, is one that Hite said he "cannot endorse as educationally sound or economically prudent for the city or the state." 

Stanski said that the budget, which piles new cuts and layoffs on top of devastating reductions imposed for this year, was "wholly insufficient." 

In a press briefing after the meeting, officials made clear that they did not want to take an action that would trigger a round of massive layoffs when there was hope that more funds may come in.

"Whatever decision we ultimately have to make, there is no purpose in passing a budget that nobody hopes will be the final budget," said Commissioner Feather Houstoun. "We just had to make clear how unacceptable this level of revenue is and how damaging it would be to Philadelphia's children."

In his presentation at the meeting, Stanski said that the District needs a total budget of $2.8 billion "to stop many years of disinvestment" – or an additional $320 million in revenue beyond what it now has in hand to start a process of school improvement and transformation.

The District is seeking an additional $96 million from the city, $150 million from the state, and $95 million in labor concessions. The $96 million will bring the District just to the level of services it has now.

Stanski, Hite, and SRC members reiterated that the SRC has no taxing power of its own and must rely on what Hite and SRC members termed "an allowance" from the state and city.

Plus, Stanski explained that only 39 percent of the District's funds are discretionary. The rest is tied up in mandatory payments, including debt service, payments to charter schools, pensions, and contractual obligations.

The biggest area to make further cuts, he said, is in programs that directly impact educational services and classrooms.  

Hite said that if the commonwealth had a fair education funding formula, the District would have $4,000 more for the education of each student -- citing the results of a 2008 "costing-out" study that attempted to quantify the needs of each school district in the state.

He also explained that slashing staff is an inefficient way to cut expenses because there are one-time termination costs associated with each person's departure, but that the District has nowhere else to cut. Stanski said that to reach a $96 million reduction, it actually woul have to find $148 million in cuts. 

City Council wants to enact a cigarette tax to raise most of the $96 million sought from the city, but Harrisburg has so far declined to provide the authorization. Other options are on the table, but may not be passed in time to avoid a layoff process from starting.

Principals have already selected staff and set up rosters and budgets. If there are layoffs, they will have to start all over again. 

"This is the end of May," Hite lamented. "School starts in September. We are talking about dismantling one thing and trying to create something else. It's just not enough time. That's why this is so distressing to school administrators and school leaders and families and staff."

Advocates in the audience who addressed the SRC in the public comment portion of the meeting were surprised and grateful for the SRC's decision to make a statement by defying the city charter and refusing to adopt a budget.

"Oh, my gosh, thank you very much," said Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA, adding that the action "gives parents hope." 

Retired teacher Karel Kilimik, a consistent SRC critic, thanked the commissioners for  taking the step.

Gobreski urged the District to go a step further if adequate funding is not forthcoming: Open schools with the resources that they need and then close them when the money runs out.

Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia urged the SRC to invite Gov. Corbett to come to an SRC meeting to hear how city students have so much less spent on them than students in surrounding, wealthier districts.

Ask him, Churchill urged, "why this is OK."

After the meeting, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan issued a statement calling the SRC's decision "the only moral option ... an acknowledgement that our schools and educators simply have no more to give."

And Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, another SRC critic, called the move "courageous." In refusing to pass a budget, the SRC "put the pressure where it belongs: on our elected officials at the city and state who are ultimately responsible for funding the education of our children."  

After the meeting concluded, Green told reporters that City Council had several times failed to adopt a city budget on time, without legal consequence. District General Counsel Michael Davis said the SRC members didn't take any legal risk.

"It was riskier to pass the budget without knowing what resources we would have," said Commissioner Farah Jimenez. 

Green said the real deadline is June 30, when city taxes for the following fiscal year must be in place.

Hite repeated that as superintendent, he is both a manager and an educator. "As a manager, I can say here’s what we have to do for balanced budget. But as an educator, it is more important for me to say, 'Here is what we need.'"

 

 

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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.