Phila SRC meets over budget tomorrow

    When Philadelphia’s school reform commissioners meet tomorrow, it will be their last chance to hear public comment on next year’s multi-billion dollar public school budget.

    When Philadelphia’s School Reform Commissioners meet tomorrow, it will be their last chance to hear public comment on next year’s multi-billion dollar public school budget. The Commission is expected to approve that budget, but state lawmakers are ready to challenge Governor Rendell’s proposed funding increases.
    (Photo: Flickr/Vincent J. Brown)

    Listen:

    [audio:090519bhschools.mp3]

    Lennis Torres has two daughters in Philadelphia public schools. Last week she visited the Stetson Middle School in North Philadelphia to find out what the district plans to do with 3.2 billion dollars.

    Torres: I know my kids are smart. And I know they do good. But something’s always something stopping them from wanting to go to school. And I always try to look into what it is. Is it the school is boring? What’s going on, you know what I’m saying?

    Torres was one of just a handful of people who came to hear an overview of next year’s proposed budget. She sat patiently through a Powerpoint presentation showing how most District dollars go to fixed costs like salaries and maintenance. But she nodded in approval when operations chief Tomas Hanna promised improvements.

    Hanna: Right now in schools you have one counselor for a thousand kids, or you have one counselor for 700 kids. what you will see at Stetson next year, going from one counselor to three. You can clap now! We think that’s important …

    Hanna went on to describe plans for smaller classes, new libraries, and increased funding for everything from athletics to special education. But Torres and the other parents also heard that all of these plans depend on Harrisburg. Ellen Steiker is a finance official with the district.

    Steiker: The problem is, as you’ve probably been reading, the state budget is in considerable deficit. So it’s a difficult sell to be selling an increase for education above what’s absolutely bare bones.

    Steiker said Governor Rendell’s budget would boost the state’s basic education subsidy by almost six percent, matching last year’s statewide increase of about five percent. Rendell’s plan would also allow Philadelphia to use federal stimulus dollars to fund most of its new initiatives. In recent years the governor has consistently pushed for education spending increases of all kinds. Some Republican legislators think its time to slow that trend.

    Steiker: Many of us are very very concerned that we’re going to take one-time money and plug it into recurring expenses.

    Tommy Tomlinson is a Republican senator from Bucks County. He voted yes on a GOP version of the state budget that would halt most of Rendell’s proposed increases. That would reduce, Philadelphia’s funding by about 300 million, and cut an estimated 54 million from suburban districts. In a speech on the senate floor, Tomlinson said school district’s shouldn’t be encouraged to use federal stimulus dollars to launch programs that would eventually become state expenses.

    Tomlinson: We cannot take federal stimulus that we know is going to disappear and expect us then in two to three years to be able to sustain that level of funding. It’s just not going to work.

    Republicans say their main concern is a state deficit that’s now approaching three billion dollars. But they also say they’re ready to negotiate over education spending.

    At Stetson Middle School, District finance official Ellen Steiker said stimulus funds are meant to help states boost spending, not cut it back.

    Steiker: We’re supposing that the governor and the state legislature will support what the Obama administration has proposed, in terms of how stimulus funds will be used. And that they’ll be used to avoid having to cut back on plans that have been made by states and localities to improve their schools.

    In the audience, Lennis Torres said she’s for anything that brings more counselors and teachers to her daughters’ schools. She wishes they got the kind of attention she got as a Philadelphia public school student.

    Torres: When I was growing up, I was involved in choir, drama, track, you name it, I was in it. And there was plenty of other things to do. You had after school programs, and you had teachers who were willing to stay after school and help you. When now, there’s a lack of that.

    The School Reform Commission will vote on Philadelphia’s school budget at a special session on May 27th. By law, legislators in Harrisburg have until June 30th to approve a state budget.

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