Beyond ‘doomsday’: Philadelphia School District unveils its ’empty shell’ budget

     Superintendent William Hite discusses the 2015 Philadelphia schools' 440 million dollar budget deficit at a press conference Friday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Superintendent William Hite discusses the 2015 Philadelphia schools' 440 million dollar budget deficit at a press conference Friday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    If it seems like we’ve been here before, we have.

    But now it’s worse.

    On Friday, the Philadelphia School District unveiled a $2.49 billion budget that will cause drastic reductions to services and staff unless additional funds are secured.

    The district says it needs $440 million in supplemental revenue to begin to implement its vision for student growth, but requires $216 million just to open schools next year with the same bare-bones levels as this one.

    If this year’s budget is “doomsday,” next year’s could be that which doomsday has left behind.

    “Short of the $216 [million], our schools will go from insufficient to just empty shells that do not represent what I consider a functioning school,” said superintendent William Hite at a news conference Friday morning.

    Hite has essentially been saying this for months. But Friday –after waiting in vain for the the city, the state, or the district’s labor partners to take steps to close the gap – he brought out the megaphone to stress the urgency of this “empty shell” scenario.

    “I’m frustrated,” Hite said, adding that he’d rather focus on how the district could improve student outcomes. “But instead we’re talking about what we’re going to have to reduce or take away … from families that have already seen a lot of things taken away over the past several years.”

    What more could be stripped?

    Depending on how much of the $216 million comes through, mass layoffs could occur, and student-teacher ratios could climb to as much as 37-to-one in elementary schools and 41-to-one in high schools.

    “Forty kids in a classroom is too many,” said Hite, “and we don’t want to go there.”

    School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green, whose overall educational philosophy does not emphasize small class size, echoed the superintendent. “My position is Dr. Hite’s position,” he said.

    The district’s current contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says classroom ratios should be no higher than 30-to-one in grades K-3 and 33-to-one in grades 4-12.

    In addition to raising student-teacher ratios, district officials said that without additional funding, the line items for school support staff, facilities, transportation, health services, school police and central administration would face the knife.

    The district’s budget assumes that it will gain $120 million from the city’s extension of a 1 percent sales tax; even though the Pennsylvania Legislature approved the plan, it’s by no means a certainty.

    Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke want to split those proceeds with the city’s underfunded pension system – an option that would, again, require approval from the state Legislature, which would be forced to undo its previous action.

    Despite the complexity and uncertainty of this ongoing debate, the district’s budget presupposes resolution.

    Assuming the full $120 million comes through, (but none of the remaining needed $96 million) the district would have to layoff more than 1,000 staffers.

    Assuming the $120 million is split between with the pension system (and, again, assuming none of the remaining needed $96 million), the district would be forced to lay off 1,700 staffers.

    At this point, with question marks crowding the district’s financial outlook, the permutations are endless.

    Talking to reporters after the event, Green, who left City Council to take the post as SRC chairman, urged his former colleagues in Council to devote all proceeds from the sales-tax extension to schools. 

    Speaking about the district’s ongoing negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Green affirmed that the district has “no plans to impose economic terms at this point.” He then added that the talks have continued “without a lot of movement.”

    PFT president Jerry Jordan characterized the district’s budget projections as “the latest chapter in a disturbing story of the intentional dismantling of a school district.”

    “Until Pennsylvania adopts a fair-funding formula for our schools,” he wrote, “we will continue to witness the evisceration of our school district and, as a result, the ultimate decline of Philadelphia.”

    Writing on the wall

    Hite, who said he’s not yet ready to repeat last year’s school-funding ultimatum, said he’s “agnostic” about the source of the additional resources.

    He did though sketch a plan that asks for $75 million from city (in addition to the $120 million in additional sales tax revenue), $150 million from the state, and $95 million from labor.

    Last year, the city and state combined to provide the district an additional $112 million, but $95 million of that was onetime, nonrecurring revenue.

    Many of the specific options for generating stable, recurring revenue have been hanging around, left undone, for months.

    The sales-tax plan preferred by Nutter and Clarke aims to supplement school funding by implementing the tax on cigarettes that City Council approved last spring.

    But the cigarette tax requires approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature, as well as Gov. Tom Corbett. So far, that has been a nonstarter.

    At the news conference, Hite listed a number of the revenue alternatives proposed by various politicians and political candidates. They include implementing a severance tax on Marcellus Shale drilling; adjusting the share of the city’s real-estate tax sent to schools; reinstating the state’s former policy of reimbursing districts for students who enroll in charter schools; and dividing proceeds from the city’s sale of taxicab medallions.

    Seemingly every school funding advocate in Philadelphia, including the mayor, wants the state to implement a funding formula that would better take into account the city’s education needs.

    When interviewed at an event later Friday afternoon, Nutter re-emphasized these positions. When pressed if he was waiting for the state to move before taking further action, he said, “We have a lot of work to do and not a whole lot of time … all of us have a simultaneous responsibility to do our part.”

    The district has been sending out individual school budgets to each of its principals. These budgets assume that the district will secure the $216 million needed to keep services at this year’s levels.

    Despite the fact that the funding is not in place, Hite defended the district’s decision, saying he “didn’t want to signal that we we’re going below current levels of support in schools.”

    Signal or not, the writing is on the wall.

    “Principals also understand,” said Hite, “that those budgets could actually get worse, and get a lot worse.”

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