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How do you fix the District's budget crisis?

By David Limm on Apr 26, 2013 11:46 AM

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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Comments (24)

Submitted by Katie (not verified) on April 26, 2013 1:45 pm
I like all of the suggestions. I would also add that the School District could crowd-source some funding, ask neighborhoods to voluntarily sign up for School-Improvement-Districts (as proposed by Planning PhD candidate Ken Steif on the notebook... which will not let me post the link), and organize volunteer efforts to repaint and repair the schools and school grounds if the school district loosened up its regulations. Right now, if you want to help paint a mural on the school you have to PAY to volunteer so that the facilities can cover liability insurance. Moreover, facilities charges every school for repairs- and with limited budgets, schools cannot afford simple repair tasks like fixing basketball hoops. Then there is the issue of the facilities workers' unions- they are designated to do the work- so if there is no money, but the community is willing to volunteer- there are still barriers to getting involved. The schools are also only open during school hours, and other programs could be conveniently run from the school- ie after-school programs, WIC assistance, community nursing, boxing classes, zumba groups in the gym... and the same is true on the weekends. If the facilities contracts were re-worked to allow non school district programs to rent the space, there would be more community involvement.
Submitted by Eileen Duffey (not verified) on April 26, 2013 2:05 pm
These comments are excellent. However, they are similar to the cries all true public school allies have been screaming for the past year. Where is the public will and the legislative will to do something about this crisis? I agree with Helen Gym- coalition building across the state is necessary to combat Harrisburg. It is discouraging to see how many folks are just this week waking up to this crisis. Even among our leaders and our supposedly educated Philadelphians, there is a great need for a more in depth understanding as to how this has happened. Did we really think we could afford to give away millions to charters and have enough left for our traditional public schools? Even among our supposedly staunch supporters of public education, there is deafening silence on the part of people who should know better- and do know better. It is no surprise that blurring of the public/private lines is at the root of an unsustainable system of "great schools". So many otherwise decent people are waiting for the whole public, private debate to unfold so they will know that they will land with the winners. This is deeply disturbing to me. These times call for courageous action. Hanging on to a democratic way of life takes work on the part of all of us. As a city, we have allowed ourselves to ignore this inconvenient truth. Schools cost a lot of money. Caring for the poor in a school setting costs even more. And yes, an engaged, citizenry willing to fight for a public system good enough for all is needed. *For the record, although I am on duty in a public school, I write this on the first break I have had all day. SDP School Nurse
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 28, 2013 12:26 pm
Yes, building a State wide coalition is crucial. Helen has been saying this since the start of the fiscal crisis. Ms. Ceci Sheckel is hired by the Mayor's Office of Education at $2000/wk till the end of June to coordinate "grassroots" and other organizations to push for more State funding. She should be asked to help with building this too.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 28, 2013 4:20 pm
The mayor hired someone at $2000/wk until June to coordinate groups pushing for more money? Where has HE been? I suppose too busy heading up his mayor's group to push for money himself, but isn't that why we voted for him? There is too much grandstanding for center city and tourism and too little effort spent on our schoool system. It's common knowledge that any city that wants to attract families should always have good schools, but Nutter is dropping the ball.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2013 3:16 pm
Hey Paul, can you explain why the NB chose four people representing nearly identical positions and representing organizations substantively similar in their views? Doesn't seem like this was a well executed way to foster a diverse set of opinions. But maybe that wasn't the point.
Submitted by Paul Socolar on April 26, 2013 3:49 pm

We chose a longer list of people and as we noted, these are the four people who responded within a reasonable timeline of about a week. I recognize that on some key points, there is a lot of overlap in the positions here. With City Council holding budget hearings on Monday, it did not make sense to hold up publication until we achieved more diversity of responses.

If you have a different point of view, you are welcome to state it in the comments, with or without your name. And you'll have the advantage of no word limit.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on April 26, 2013 4:45 pm
There is NO financial crisis except the manufactured one Corbett and the shot callers above him have foisted on Phila. and other urban areas. The longer we buy into their lies and regard them as "real," the longer we are putting off the inevitable which is fighting back by any means necessary. Recognize the difference between Chicken Salad and Chicken ...." to quote one Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Submitted by matt (not verified) on April 26, 2013 10:43 pm
This is other people's idea just repeated through my typing. Phase out public funding. Pay for a public education with 1/13th of 1% of your wages per year of attendance (i.e., if you attend from K thru 12, 1% of your income each year after graduation goes back to your alma maters). Who could resent that? I'll bet if something like this were put into place for current students and former students were allowed to opt into the program, many former students would get on board (especially if they could have some say in how their money gets used. So for example, with their annual check 3/4 goes to the general budget and 1/4 goes to programs of their choosing - athletics, technology in classrooms, facilities improvement, college scholarships, ...).
Submitted by tom-104 on April 26, 2013 11:27 pm
The thinking in this comment is precisely what got us into this mess. Public education is for the public good, not just the individual student or family. We depend on people we come in contact with every day to be educated. A democracy can only survive if everyone is looking out for the common good, not just themselves.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on April 27, 2013 9:05 am
Tom 104-----In addition to what you said, the only way "To Fix the District Budget Crisis," is to DEMAND by any means necessary that Corbett stop being controlled by the 1% and yes, look out for the "Public Good." ACCEPTING this crap gives tacit approval to his abuse and emboldens him to keep carpet bombing us. Nutter, Hite et al are his torpedoes against their own people. Very Honorable but to make them even less attractive, they'll play The Race Card if it helps them continue to hoodwink their own folks. There's a word for that and it ain't a compliment.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 28, 2013 3:05 pm
Right on target Joe. as always. but let me add that there is no "their own people," when it comes to green. Philadelphia's children are OUR own people, so yes to looking out for the public good. Public schools were created to be equal access institutions, and the malarky about charters being public is a cruel joke. People should be appalled that their tax money goes to a Truebright "science academy" or anything else that they don't know about. This was unthinkable back in the day, there was no blurring of the public/private lines which forced traditional schools to be better.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2013 11:17 pm
This could seriously suck for many schools. What would be someone's alma mater? Their elementary school? Middle? High? Would they designate 1? If it were high school, one would imagine that a place like Central would do fantastically well, a place like SLA, not so much (too new to get that funding, would die in an instant)...and let's not get started in on the neighborhood schools.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 28, 2013 12:05 pm
matt, I think parts of your idea are good with some "practicality/reality" adjustments. This is already happening to some degree with volunteers and family and community contributions. We shouldn't replace public funding, because the public should be responsible for the education of young people that live here and will influence the future of that same public. We could however supplement public funding with a sliding scale fee that phases out to "0" if a family is under a certain net worth/ability to pay. I think this is better than a flat percentage, because it recognizes thresholds (as in cost of living) in ability to pay. A supplement of course should not be factored in to replace or displace public funding, but used rather as a "safety net" cushion/emergency reserve to prevent crises as we have now in the SDP. It can also be used for projects that need "that little bit" to move forward, but not fund these entirely. A small usage fee seems fair, as it would recognize that some of the taxpaying public will never use public school services. Requiring a fee on future earnings probably won't be popular, even with the "opt in". Probably it's best to leave this to individual donations, as it is now. Also, there would need to be an override that would allow a school district to apply these funds where they were most needed, in the case that there is a net imbalance of designated categories. Since there are so many impoverished families here in Philly, such a usage fee may not raise much, but who knows? We would need better technology/a way to expedite the accurate assessment of a family's "ability to pay". Right now we're not there yet and the cost to establish a system like this would probably outweigh the benefits.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 28, 2013 4:47 pm
What alma mater, most of them have been closed. Time to wake up.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 28, 2013 12:31 pm
The bulk of these suggestions focus on the supply/income side of the equation and not the spending side. You need both, and simultaneously too. We missed an opportunity at politically restructuring the SDP when we summarily dismissed BCG suggestion of "achievement networks". Not even State supervision through the entity of the SRC, is enough to prevent the lack of accountability in the current political structure of the SDP that leads to unwise spending/gross waste. Elected school boards (look at Camden) aren't the complete solution either, because elections are too easily manipulated, especially when contracts from the SDP are so lucrative. Frankly the theory that the 1% is the cause, has become pretty destructive to positive change. The more accurate model here, is that problems are caused by individuals who ruthlessly act for self gain (house flippers, and financial institution employees/managers for example) and are allowed to by a system and culture that we have built. In the aggregate they have brought on this recession, that has led to loss of State and Federal funding. But how convenient to blame the 1% wealthy because they will always be a minority.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 30, 2013 7:17 pm
Ms. Cheng, What you want is a middle ground. It's what I want. It's what many others want. I don't agree with and am deeply suspicious of much of the current "corporate" school reforms. I am suspicious of the motives (money, self-interest) and I see that the research is beginning to show that these reforms aren't working. I am a PFT member. I believe in unions. But I also see that there are serious problems with the PFT. Take Common Core, for example. I deeply support the idea of the Common Core State Standards, that there needs to be a common curriculum. It need not be a federal or national curriculum; the unanimity can come from the states. However, a common curriculum is necessary for the 21st century and for furthering the teaching profession. Common standards allow for teaching programs to be more specific in training teachers rather than the generalist approach that is in place now. I believe in the idea of local control, but understand that the idea needs tweaking from 250 years ago. Our world is radically different. I oppose the content and rigor of the CCSS because, especially at the younger grade levels, the CCSS are not developmentally appropriate. In addition, the implementation of the CCSS has been haphazard. Teachers haven't had enough training on the new standards. I am also concerned about the new standardized tests coming to fruition based on CCSS. Nonetheless, I support the idea of the CCSS and would support revision of the standards and a better process of implementing the CCSS. I feel the same way about the School District of Philadelphia. Yes, I'm a relatively new employee. I did my student teaching in the District and another practicum. So yes, my experience is limited. But there is room for many viewpoints, including the wise veterans and less experienced employees who have spent less time in the system and may a bit more independence in their thinking from that of a long-time employee. I hear people say that the 1% is the cause, foundations are coming in and running the District, and "corporate school reformers" are trying to destroy unions. I agree with these statements. The problem is, some posters on here say them with cynicism. They automatically assume the fix is in. And who knows, it could be. But here's the problem. That kind of cynicism wipes out hope. That kind of cynicism makes people throw up their hands and stop fighting instead of focusing on what can be changed. There are a multitude of problems and causes for the District's predicament. Yes, there are outsiders like the Broad Foundation which are targeting the unions. Yes, the budget cuts over the last couple of years have been terrible for the education of students and morale of students and employees of the District. However, parents didn't start flocking to charters in the last 3 years. Parents didn't start choosing charters because the Walton Foundation or the Broad Foundation told them to do so. No, parents have been choosing charters long before the current budget crisis because there are real problems with some schools in the District. These problems have their roots at 440 and in the schools. Everyone is to blame. The schools with the most problems do tend to have the most students living in poverty and are often in the inner city neighborhoods. Parent involvement is spotty. It's hard to contact parents because phone numbers change. Parents have thrown up their hands. Parents resort to always beating their kid's behind instead of thinking of more constructive methods or ways to change behavior and help kids learn from their behavior. There is less ability of lower income communities to raise money for their neighborhood school to offset budget cuts. At the same time, there are charter schools that are doing things that the District could implement in its own schools and could have been implementing for years. It's not all about money. Yes, money makes a difference, but it's not everything. There are a lot of practices that don't require any extra money. Teaching kids how to walk in the hallways quietly. Reinforcing kids for wearing the proper uniform. Watching tone of voice. Using incentive charts. Computer teachers teaching lessons about how to use technology instead of just letting kids just play games on the computer. There are so many improvements that the District could have implemented and should have implemented years ago. People acting for self gain are not just the 1%. I know of teachers, a principal, and other workers who are within 5 years of retiring and should retire now because they no longer have the energy, patience, or stamina to do their job. However, they stay in primarily because they want their 30 years. At the school where I work, there are noon time aides in their 50s and 60s who are not physically capable of doing their jobs. Why doesn't the District mandate physicals for its employees every 1 to 2 years? They're working with kids! This isn't about picking on senior employees---this is about the reality that some employees are no longer capable of doing their jobs. There's too much keeping quiet among District employees about mediocrity. There needs to be an ethic that, "If you're not doing what's right for kids, you shouldn't be here." Unions should be pushing their employees to do their best because high quality employees are the best PR for any union. Just showing up on time isn't enough. I always try to think, "What would I do if this was my child?" Unions can't pretend that all their workers are doing a good job. Make sure and expect your workers to do a good job. Don't just expect the supervisors to do it. Demand it of employees. PFT reps should be making sure that other teachers are doing their jobs. Why, because this is the best PR for the PFT. Parents aren't dumb. Kids aren't dumb. There are real issues of quality in the School District of Philadelphia. These issues of quality involve all levels of the District, including school-based employees. These issues have been festering for years. And until EVERY District employee and every union which operates in the District owns up to the fact that there are employees who aren't doing their jobs and need to be fired or retire, there will continue to be parents who, in desperation, choose charter and private schools. Yes, the powers that be are targeting the District and the unions, but the unions aren't completely the victims here. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 29, 2013 5:16 pm
Ms. Cheng, you are missing the larger picture and to see that you have only to look at the Broad Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation , the Walton family, Rupert Murdoch, and the ALEC agenda. This is highly scripted and not exclusive to Philadelphia. You want to take the advice of the BCG- who do you think hires them?
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 30, 2013 7:26 am
It is sad that ideas with potential are dismissed simply because of "who" proposes them. I only mentioned BCG because the fact that it was BCG that suggested this idea meant the idea was tossed out without further consideration. Dividing the SDP into more autonomous subdivisions, by method and idea rather than bureaucratic power is something that should have been investigated further. It wouldn't have to be nonprofits; other trustworthy, cost effective organizations that had some political separation (did not draw their wages/salary) from the SDP would have worked. There is an ongoing problem with accountability in the current political structure. Dividing the SDP into more politically independent governing would help tremendously with accountability - those huge contracts might be much smaller and actually drop to their real cost for example. This option would also have proactively addressed and countered the reasoning for moving management of individual schools to charter operators. And we know how expensive this is proving to be. But then there are those who are profiting from this lack of accountability right now. How convenient that there is that 1% to blame, so that they can continue to profit. The Broad Foundation is the small view, not the larger picture at all. .
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 30, 2013 8:07 am
Ms.Cheng, if the profiteers,and union busters are the smaller picture whom do you consider to be the larger picture? Alternative ideas are not being taken into account because TPTB are there not to make changes other than what they are doing now. I believe this question about ideas was asked by the Notebook. I was heartened to hear the question posed yesterday at council hearings: "has the SRC thought about an elected school board. "Of course not, they are not there for that reason, but the SRC should have been long gone. You can contact council peole through Twitter and ask that they address specific questions in the hearings. Darrell Clarke was clearly impatient with Ramos who was not answering what was asked.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 30, 2013 10:17 am
Again, we are skirting the real problem and real solutions. An elected school board will not increase the accountability at all, you have only to look at Camden which has an elected school board, and is much smaller even. Parents are transferring to charters because they are answering their concerns, that would be accountability. Smaller more autonomous entities within the District would not bust any unions. But they would bust large and "under the table", politically connected contracts. Council can't rearrange/restructure the District, but the SRC can. They have bowed to public pressure and expedience. Small mindedness thinks only of fear.
Submitted by MBA to M'Ed mom (not verified) on April 30, 2013 8:14 pm
Very well said!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 30, 2013 6:39 pm
"Smaller automous entities"? WTH are you talking about?. FYI parents don't send their kids to charters for "accountability."
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 30, 2013 8:19 pm
Networks of schools that can have flexibility in their curriculum and contracted services. By keeping the umbrella of the SDP, they can still share resources (including unionized teachers), but they will have greater power to choose what's best for their students. It won't be a single office that is choosing an inappropriate template for them. Accountability is one of the reasons parents choose charters. I have a friend with her son at Mastery.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 30, 2013 6:58 pm
"Small mindedness thinks only of fear." >> Wow that's deep.

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