Philly School Reform Commission refuses to adopt ’empty shell’ budget

     Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    After receiving a bleak portrait of the cuts to the Philadelphia School District’s bottom line, the SRC defied the city charter by refusing to adopt a budget for fiscal year 2015.

    After receiving a devastatingly bleak portrait of the potentially necessary cuts to the Philadelphia School District’s bottom line, the School Reform Commission defied the city charter Thursday night by refusing to adopt a budget for fiscal year 2015.

    The district currently faces a $440 million budget shortfall. It needs $216 million in additional revenue merely to open schools next year with this year’s bare-bones, “doomsday” level of services.

    The additional $224 million would help the district implement Superintendent William Hite’s vision for system-wide growth.

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    The district currently cannot count on any of this funding.

    Saying the status quo would leave schools next year as “empty shells … where children come, spend seven hours of the day, and then they go home,” Hite urged the SRC not to adopt a budget.

    “As a manager, I must present a budget,” explained Hite. “As an educational leader, I cannot recommend that we endorse this budget at this time.”

    To cheers of agreement from the crowd, SRC Chairman Bill Green obliged Hite’s request.

    “Rather than adopting a ‘Doomsday Two’ budget and giving anybody the impression that the cuts it contains are feasible or acceptable, we are not going to act on the budget tonight,” said Green. “It is not acceptable. Instead, we will continue to focus our energy and attention on the needed funding for our schools from both the city and the state.”

    The district’s funding request breaks down this way:

    $195 million from the city of Philadelphia. This includes the $120 million in revenue from the city’s 1 percent sales-tax extension that is tied up in City Council.
    $150 million from the state.
    $95 million in savings from restructured contracts with its labor partners, the teachers union being the largest.

    As CFO Matt Stanski wearily recounted, the district has been making a case for this funding for months, to no avail.

    “We’ve had the revenue request in for two months now. We’ve heard nothing. And so therefore, unfortunately, I am having to present to you ways to quote ‘balance the budget’ without knowing these additional answers,” he said.

    As Stanski presented a slide show of his Fiscal Year ’15 “balanced budget,” the usually fiery crowd gathered at district headquarters became eerily somber – each of Stanski’s bullet points seeming to suck more air from the room.

    Even assuming the district gets the full $120 million from the city’s sales-tax extension, without further revenues, schools next year would be devastated.

    According to Stanski’s projections:

    800 teachers would be laid off.
    Class sizes would balloon across all grade levels. Grades one through three would be capped at 37 students; grades four through eight at 40 students; grades nine through 12 at 41 students; career technical classrooms at 32 students.
    $5.5 million would be cut from special education services.
    $1.5 million would be cut from the district’s promise academies.
    $2.2 million would be cut from alternative education.
    $9.6 million would be cut from cleaning and maintaining facilities. Staff could “only respond to emergencies,” Stanski said.
    $3.8 million would be cut from transportation. Walking distance would be increased from 1.5 miles to 2 miles for high school students.
    $2.4 million would be cut from the school police budget, resulting in 36 fewer positions.
    Guidance counselors and nurses would continue to be premiums across the district, as would funds for books and supplies.

    “After cutting all that we cut a year ago, how is it possible, how is it possible that we’re asked to cut anymore?” said Hite, his voice quivering, his fist pounding the table. “How is it possible that we can say to our students that we’re going to take more things away?”

    After announcing his intention to bypass the SRC’s vote on the budget, Green made an impassioned argument for why the city and state should invest in Hite’s vision for the district.

    “Every day, families are making decisions about whether to stay in Philadelphia. Every day, students are feeling the consequences of our lack of full, fair funding,” Green said. “Let us be clear — the stakes are great, and failing our collective obligation to our children is not an option.”

    Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, praised the SRC’s decision, calling it “not merely prudent,” but the “only moral option.”

    “It is ultimately a simple acknowledgement that our schools and educators simply have no more to give,” he said.

    Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, called the SRC’s action a “bold and wise” move that would “send a clear message to our elected leaders.”

    “We have to have a line in the sand,” she said. “There’s only so much that we can do before we’re putting the future of our children and the everyday safety our our children at risk.”

    Stanski warned that the additional $39 million proposed for the district in Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2015 budget could also be at risk.

    With a June 30 deadline looming for passing a state budget, the state faces a $1.2 billion budget gap of its own. Corbett has so far signalled that he’d like to fill that gap through additional cuts, not added revenues.

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