Philly SRC approves dire school budget, hoping to restore some cuts

The Philadelphia School District’s art classes that often keep troubled kids enrolled will be gone next year. The guidance counselors who gently steer high schoolers through the process of applying for college — bye, bye. The sports teams where students learn about collaboration — kaput.

The School Reform Commission adopted a budget Thursday night, 4-1, which would slash the district’s operating funds by about 8 percent and eliminate approximately 3,000 jobs.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky cast the sole dissenting vote. Under the approved budget, he said, the schools that open in September would hardly be schools at all, lacking nurses, librarians and music.

“I agree we should adopt a budget today,” Dworetzky said. “I just don’t think this is the budget we should adopt.”

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett said the budget was not “constitutionally adequate,” and he voted for it only to fulfill legal obligations.

The SRC’s vote comes in spite of hundreds of teachers, students and parents who protested against the budget Thursday, begging the SRC to find a way to avoid drastic cuts that come on top of past austerity measures.

“We will not have school security,” student Manaz Bell told the SRC. “This decision will make me feel unsafe.”

SRC chairman Pedro Ramos and Superintendent William Hite said the body was forced to approve the so-called “doomsday” budget because there’s no guarantee that more funding will come through. The SRC does not have the power to tax.

Additionally, they said, the SRC is required by law to pass a budget by May 31.

“To be fiscally responsible, the School District of Philadelphia must live within its means,” Hite said. “This is not the budget that anyone wants.”

But Hite said there is still time to change course. In order to avoid the cuts, school district officials have been begging for $60 million from the city, $120 million from the state, and $133 million in givebacks from unionized district employees.

Ramos said he’s looking forward to the weeks ahead, when the city and state finish hashing out their own budgets. If the district receives a cash infusion at that time, it could amend its budget to reflect that, he said.

But it seems unlikely that the district officials will get everything they say they need.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan is not budging on concessions.

Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Senate Republicans, said honest budgeting is appreciated in Harrisburg, but “the issue of finding a source for $120 million in new state funds remains as challenging as ever.”

And the fate of Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to raise an extra $95 million, mostly through taxes on cigarettes and liquor, is uncertain. A City Council committee approved his $2-per-pack pack cigarette tax proposal, but not a hike in the liquor-by-the-drink tax.

To make matters more complicated, Nutter’s plan requires state legislation.

Another option is Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s proposal to raise money for the schools by increasing the use-and-occupancy tax, a levy on commercial property owners. Groups like the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce strongly oppose that plan.

Politicians, parents and students wondered Thursday if there was another way to shore up the school budget. Some said the district ought to look at places like the central office for cuts. Others argued that the city should do a better job collecting the taxes it is owed.

Others still said SRC members should be elected, not appointed — or kicked out altogether.

“May this be your last vote,” said parent activist Helen Gym. “You frittered away countless millions on reckless charter expansion.”

Advocates hope desperately that something pans out. They can’t imagine enduring further cuts to the district, after it has decided to close dozens of schools, reduce nursing staff and downsize the administration.

“We are already doing a lot with less,” said student Daphne Weinstein.

Pritchett, whose two children attend Philly public schools, said the district’s allies should continue demanding additional money from the city and state. 

“But if it does not happen,” Pritchett said, “we are certainly going to need to pursue many other avenues before we open the schools in the fall.”

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