Council holds hearing on funding for public schools
by Isaac Riddle
Matthew E. Stanski, the Philadelphia School District's chief financial adviser, and Lori Shorr, chief education officer for the mayor’s office, told the City Council Education Committee on Wednesday that the District doesn’t have enough revenue to adequately educate students.
In response, however, City Council members were surly, questioning the relationship between money and achievement and expressing their irritation that Stanski couldn’t tell them exactly how much money the District will be asking for next year from either the city or the state.
Shorr and Stanski argued that a predictable state funding formula would help the District become financially stable.
A state funding formula based on districts' needs and student enrollments was created under the Rendell administration, but was abandoned when Gov. Corbett took office in 2011.
“We need a funding formula so it isn’t a year-to-year begging,” said Shorr. “There’s got to be a predictability. You have to be able to know so that it is not an every-year drama.”
Part of the purpose of the hearing was to weigh a Council resolution that would call for the Education Committee to begin a series of meetings to address the state’s approach to education funding.
Council members voiced their frustration and skepticism of the District’s fiscal needs and use of current resources.
“We are not sure how money impacts learning,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. She said that her constituents think that $11,000 per student, even though it is less than many affluent suburbs, is "a lot of money" that doesn't seem to be producing good results.
Councilman David Oh especially questioned whether more funding was the solution to the problem of high-quality public education in Philadelphia. He said that other districts and countries with similar per-student spending amounts produce higher student achievement than Philadelphia.
Though he doesn’t agree that more money is the only solution, Oh acknowledged that creating equity in how state funds are distributed is important. The disparity, he suggested, is that state funding is a constitutional issue, violating the state constitution’s requirement for providing a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”
Some Council members showed frustration over how late in the school year the District releases the details of its budget.
Wilson Goode Jr. repeatedly asked Stanski how early Council could be told the amount of money the District would need from the state. Legally, the District does not need to report on the coming year’s budget until March 31.
Shorr promised to inform City Council on the amount as soon as that information is made available to her. Stanski said that the numbers were still too fluid to give a definitive answer. But he noted that the District sought funds to close a $304 million budget shortfall this year, and so far has fallen far short in raising that amount from the city, state, and through labor concessions.
Next year, he said, the need will be even greater.
"At the start of this school year, we needed an additional $304 million in savings and new revenue just to get back to last year's spending levels," he said. "In future years, our major expenses are expected to increase, despite the drastic cuts. ... Next year, our costs are expected to increase by $75 million to $100 million, due to higher pension and health benefits, utility expenses, charter school payments, and salaries."
Neither Oh nor Goode was satisfied.
“We really need to know ahead of time of how much money is necessary if we are going to advocate to the state,” said Oh. “We are trying to understand what kind of funding does the School District need.”
Stanski defended how the District has made use of its current budget.
“We have done a good job, with as little resources we have, of getting it into the classroom,” said Stanski.
The District will again have the opportunity to argue for a state-funding model and the need for more resources, but Council wants to make sure that any extra revenue to the School District is warranted.
“We hear you but we still don’t understand,” said Blackwell.
Isaac Riddle is an intern at the Notebook.
Dale Mezzacappa contributed to this report.