Likely budget crunch forces a look at retirement incentives for the school district

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s recent proposal to cut more than $1 billion in funding for public schools loomed over a Wednesday night community meeting in Germantown featuring Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

A number of the 60-plus residents that gathered for the District’s first Faith-Based Community Outreach “Chat and Chew” event expressed concerns on two fronts. The first focused on the district’s ability to deliver on its academic goals; the second, on the future of school-related programs and services.

In response, Ackerman painted an uncertain and fairly grim picture for the crowd assembled inside The First Presbyterian Church in Germantown and acknowledged the threat of teacher layoffs.   

Ackerman said the District is facing an uphill budget battle in advance of the 2011-2012 school year. The district has said it’s expecting a $309 million loss in federal stimulus funds, which would anchor an overall budget shortfall that could easily eclipse $400 million.  If Corbett’s education budget is approved, said Ackerman, the district would be left treading in even deeper water and visible cuts would be made across the district.

Corbett is most notably calling for big cuts to state funding of basic education. His plan also looks to stop reimbursing districts for charter-school costs.

“Once we get to $500 million, we have to go into the schools in a serious way,” said Ackerman of the cuts.

“I’m really nervous about it,” she said.

Ackerman explained that a half-billion dollar revenue loss would require the district to make a number of cuts to on-site counseling staff, as well as to art, athletic and music programs.

After the meeting, she said that classroom sizes would likely increase and that the district may look into giving some of its eligible staff an incentive to retire early. About 10 percent of the district’s staff has already put in enough years to retire from the system, she said. These staff members would likely be at or near the top of their pay grade and could be replaced by younger teachers with lower salaries.

“So that we can keep people instead of laying off,” said Ackerman of the plan’s benefits.

These types of cuts would come in addition to a dramatic staff reduction at the District’s Central Office, she said. The district has announced plans for a 30 percent cut in its central office budget, but even these deep cuts would alleviate less than 10 percent of the total budget gap.  

During a question and answer session, residents had concerns about whether the district could continue to make concrete academic progress in the face of these cuts. In particular, many residents were not convinced that the district could get close to Ackerman’s ambitious goal to have every student proficient in reading in math by 2023. Currently, only half of students meet state standards in those areas.

Residents also asked about the future of traditional district-led summer school as well as its enrichment programs, like the Summer Learning and More program (SLAM). Ackerman said those programs will also be at risk of being cut after next school year. District bus and van services will also face cuts in the future, she said.

“There’s no way this isn’t going to impact what we’re trying to do if this budget gets passed,” she said.

This story is the product of a news gathering partnership between NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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