SRC passes budget despite public outcry
by Dale Mezzacappa on May 31 2011 Posted in Latest news
The School Reform Commission passed a $2.75 billion budget Wednesday that was roundly criticized by a roomful of students, parents, advocates, and others for cutting essential services like full-day kindergarten and most free student transportation while preserving other programs that many speakers said were unproven or unessential.
Commmissioner Johnny Irizarry voted no, without comment, while Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky voted yes with reservations.
"I certainly understand the pain and fear and unhappiness about a budget that makes as serious changes as this one does," Dworetzky said. "I wish it could be much different, but I think the approach taken is a fair approach."
Later, Irizarry explained his vote: "I just feel there were too many unanwsered questions. I didn't agree with some of the cuts." During the meeting Irizarry asked several questions about plans to close 13 privately run alternative schools designed to reengage out-of-school youth and replace them -- at lower cost -- with District-run options.
The SRC also passed a resolution that gives it the right to cancel collective bargaining agreements by June 30 if they are not renegotiated. All the members voted yes, with Dworetzky saying he doesn't expect the District to use the power. The budget counts on $75 million in savings from new agreements.
The vote followed nearly two-and-a-half hours of public testimony at which the SRC got an earful from members of the public.
Councilman Bill Green was the first of more than 30 scheduled speakers, and while he said he came in a "true spirit of cooperation," he said that he had still not received requested information showing the efficacy of some programs that the District is proposing to keep as opposed to what it has put on the chopping block.
"I urge the School District to stop fear-mongering," he said. "Don't hold us hostage."
In an hourlong presentation before the public started its testimony, officials including Superintendent Arlene Ackerman tried to straighten out what they said were misconceptions and misinformation about the proposed budget, which is designed to close a $629 million funding shortfall.
Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch called it an "interim" budget made necessary by legal requirements. The District is required to adopt a balanced budget by the end of May.
Faced with the end of federal stimulus funds and draconian cuts in education aid in Gov. Tom Corbett's spending plan for next year, officials are in heavy negotiations with both the city and the state to find additional revenues.
District officials are also talking to SEPTA in an effort to change the process by which state reimbursements are credited for some of its transportation costs as one way to forestall transportation cuts. The budget passed by the SRC ends all transportation for regular education students who attend District-run or private schools.
Masch said that he expected that the SRC would adopt a revised budget, probably by the end of June, once the state approved its final spending plan and the mayor and City Council decided whether and how the city could provide more revenue.
"At this moment in time the only thing we can do is adopt an interim budget," he said. "There is a likelihood there will be significant changes in the coming days and weeks. ...[We hope to] roll back some of the most harmful cuts."
Ackerman asked Masch a series of questions designed to show that many of its contracts with vendors -- which have come under heavy criticism -- are for mandated services. One big item, $65 million, he said, is to pay private schools for court-mandated placement of students who need special services.
Masch said that vendor contracts in total amount to 12 percent of the budget.
Apparently responding to repeated complaints that full-day kindergarten is being cut while an 18-day summer school program is being retained, Ackerman said that summer school is paid for through federal Title I funds, while kindergarten -- which is not required in Pennsylvania -- does not have a dedicated funding source. Ackerman also implied that research on the effectiveness of summer school shows benefits equivalent to that of kindergarten and early childhood education, which is also slated to be cut.
But few of the speakers seemed persuaded by those assertions. Parent Rebecca Poyourow decried what she called a "lack of oversight and priority-setting by the SRC." Several speakers questioned spending more money in the turnaround Promise Academies and on converting schools to Renaissance charters without more evidence that they are improving student outcomes.
For most of the more than three-hour meeting, the room was full. Many in the audience were students in some of the 13 privately run accelerated schools for out-of-school youth. Some held up signs and spoke urging that their schools be kept open.
SRC member Irizarry asked what the District would do for these students.
Associate Superintendent Penny Nixon and Benjamin Wright, who oversees the alternative system, explained a new plan to create five District-run accelerated schools in their place and to use funds from the Department of Labor to set up 10 more school-based programs. They said the District's plan would serve far more students and provide the same level of services.
But students who have benefited from the existing alternative schools pleaded, sometimes tearfully, that they continue as is.
"El Centro is my high school, my pride, my integrity and most important, my education," said Joandaly Chavez, referring to her accelerated school, run by Big Picture Philadelphia. Others spoke about their success at Excel Academy, run by Camelot.
To close the staggering budget gap, the District is also counting on savings of $75 million by renegotiating collective bargaining agreements. Masch told SRC members that some -- but not all -- of its five unions have agreed to reopen their contracts.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, by far the largest of the District's five unions, was in the audience but didn't speak publicly. He said that he was outraged at the move to override the contracts.
The SRC, under the law authorizing the state takeover of the District, already has power to impose terms on its unions, but has never used it.
"They have no credibility," said Jordan, who said that the PFT is not negotiating any change in the contract. "How can teachers believe a thing that they say?"
The PFT is due for a 3 percent raise in January. Forgoing that raise will not get the District to the $75 million it has earmarked, Jordan said.
"My members have gone 16 months without a raise," he said. "We were not at the table when they spent millions that led to the $629 million deficit."
Masch said that without these concessions from the unions, something else would have to be cut from the budget.