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District ratchets up pleas for more funds; Clarke calls request 'disturbing and unfair'

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Superintendent William Hite and School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green are putting on a full-court press through the media to convince City Council to approve a higher borrowing level for the School District, warning of hundreds of teacher layoffs and other dire consequences if lawmakers don't act.

In response, Council President Darrell Clarke accused the District of "dealing with a ... budget deficit of its own making" and of "disrespect" for the city's taxpayers.

“Considering City Council is the only funding authority that has consistently increased revenues for the state-controlled School District of Philadelphia over the last four years, this disrespect toward City taxpayers is disturbing and unfair," said Clarke in a response to Green's and Hite's statements.

Hite warned again of schools that, come September, will be so understaffed that they would no longer be educational institutions. For the first time, he talked about one strategy urged by advocates -- opening schools fully staffed and then closing them when the money runs out -- as something that is being seriously considered.

"All of these things have consequences. That is why we have to review each one," Hite said.

Green, who left City Council in February to become SRC chair, said he hasn't given up hope that his former colleagues will "do the right thing." And he said later in an interview that, since joining the SRC, he realizes that his own votes against giving the District additional funds in the past -- before Hite became superintendent -- were "bad votes."

It is possible, Green said, to reach a point that resources are so lacking that it is impossible "to do anything well. ... We're at a level of funding that is not sustainable." The constant, year-by-year begging for adequate resources is causing anyone who can to leave the city and is undermining the city's future, he said.

The standoff with Council is a source of growing frustration for education advocates, dozens of whom stood with Hite and Green on Tuesday in the atrium of District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. They agree with District leaders that both the city and the commonwealth need to allocate more money to the city's schools.

But the focus is now on City Council, which will vote Thursday on a bill to borrow $27 million against future sales tax revenues and give the money to the District. Under authority granted by the state, Council could have voted to borrow $55 million with minimal impact to the cty's budget and no impact on current city services.

Green said that because Council is "leaving $28 million on the table," the District will be forced to cut about $40 million in personnel and programs. The higher amount is due to the costs of layoffs in one-time termination payments and outlays.

"It's time to place politics and oneupsmanship aside," Hite said. City and state lawmakers, he said, are playing a "dangerous game of chicken" at the expense of the city's kids.

"These are our children. These are not somebody else's children," Hite said.

It is still possible to amend the bill, though City Council would have to come back on June 26 for final passage.

The SRC has no taxing power of its own and is dependent on city and state funding to stay open. Since Gov. Corbett took office, the state has made decisions that drastically cut back the amount of money sent to school districts across the state. For Philadelphia, it was a combination of the end of federal stimulus funds that weren't replaced by the state and decisions like ending a partial state reimbursement for charter school spending. Elimination of that budget line item alone cost Philadelphia $110 million a year.

City Council has stepped in to fill some of the shortfall. Local funding for the schools has increased about $290 million annually since Mayor Nutter took office, according to a letter he sent to Hite yesterday. This has not been nearly enough to stave off thousands of layoffs and other drastic cuts.

Council feels put upon, especially because it had been eyeing the extension of Philadelphia's 1 percent sales tax surcharge to help shore up the city's ailing pension fund. The General Assembly, while declining to increase state aid to the District, told the city to apply $120 million a year from those funds to the schools starting in 2014-15.

It then gave Council the authority to borrow $50 million against the future tax revenue to fill the hole in this year's budget.

But Clarke has resisted doing that. Instead, he proposed to fill the hole this year by giving the District $50 million in return for its vacant properties, which the city would then sell. 

The District nixed that offer. Its leaders have consistently said they should have the full amount possible from the state-authorized borrowing as well as all the proceeds from the building sales.

Officials say they need $96 million more in funds just to reach this year's spotty level of services. The $28 million would go toward closing that gap, said spokesman Fernando Gallard. 

Hite and Green say they need $440 million to fully staff schools and make a start on Hite's reform plans. For that, they are asking for $195 million from the city, $150 million from the state, and $95 million in labor concessions.

City Council wants to increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $2 to raise money for the schools -- which would bring in about $80 million a year -- but it needs authorization from the state legislature. And as the state faces its own funding shortfall, it is considering some revenue increases, which could make it possible to get approval for the cigarette tax.

The state doesn't finalize its budget until the end of June, while City Council's last scheduled session is Thursday. Hite, Green, and the mayor have made multiple trips to Harrisburg to see if there is any deal that could bring more state money to the city schools. Green said they are advocating for restoration of the charter school reimbursement line item as one way to raise needed funds.

But Hite said that Council's continued reluctance to adopt the measures that the legislature approved last year -- the $120 million sales tax extension and the $50 million in borrowing for this year -- is making it harder to get Harrisburg to act.

"All of those things become distractions," he said.

Clarke, however, says that it is the state's responsibility to fund schools and the city has done its share. The District's needs are draining money from the city and slowing its recovery, he said.

"While other large cities are enhancing services and infrastructure following the Great Recession," he wrote in his response, "the City of Philadelphia remains in perpetual recession thanks to the School District’s ongoing fiscal challenges. Instead of improving core City functions like public safety, we are looking for more ways to squeeze money from our residents to send to a School District that feels it is not accountable to us."

His former colleague, Green, takes the opposite view. A good school system is essential to economic health, he said.

"We're here to transform our schools to transform our city," said Green.

Nutter has largely backed the District's position. He sent a letter to Hite that didn't specifically endorse the additional $28 million in borrowing, although he has said he supports that option. He said that on a "listening tour" of schools over the past several weeks, he has asked students and teachers what they need and would like to have.

"Their requests were so heartbreakingly meager," he said. "Workbooks they can write in. Someone to help them apply for financial aid. Supplies so they can have biology and chemistry labs. Current textbooks. More adults so they can feel safe in the hallways. A couple of clubs after school. Sports equipment. These requests from our students should shame us as a city and a state."

For the workers in the schools, the problem is obvious.

"We're seeing a deterioration in what we can offer students," said Marjorie Neff, the principal of Masterman middle and high school, who is retiring this year. The elite magnet school has been forced to increase class size, cut some courses, and scrimp for supplies and other basics.

"Masterman has been a great equalizer for academically talented kids regardless of their income," she said. "If the opportunities are not here, parents will make up the gaps if they can afford it. If parents can't afford it, kids will be denied those opportunities. That's wrong."

Hite and Green said they remained optimistic. Green tweeted about thanking his former colleagues in advance for approving the additional $28 million in borrowing. 

"I'm certainly not conceding defeat," said Hite. "We hear it all the time, we're not going to give you one more dime. But I'm not going to concede. The stakes are too high."

 

Video by Dorian Geiger

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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.