School district officials come to Philly Council in quest for funds

 School district and SRC officials prepare to testify at City Council. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

School district and SRC officials prepare to testify at City Council. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

Philadelphia School District officials came to City Council seeking funds to balance its budget.

The school district is seeking $75 million plus the entire $120 million that an extension of a 1 percent Philadelphia sales tax premium would generate. The district brought all of its big guns to make its case for more funding, including Meredith Elementary Principal Cindy Farlino.

“We are trying to make it work, but we can only carry this so far,” she said Monday. “The thread we are holding is being stretched to the limit, and we hope and we know that you can throw us a rope.”

District Superintendent William Hite acknowledged the prospect of cuts in city service in order to give the district the money it desperately needs.

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“I’m proud to say that I am a homeowner in the city, I’m a taxpayer in the city, and I appreciate all those other services, some of which as a taxpayer or a homeowner I could let go or see discontinued,” he said. “Schools don’t have the ability to discontinue.”

Times are tough at the district, which this year operated on a bare-bones budget, said Bill Green, School Reform Commission chairman.

“We know that our principals, teachers and support staff are holding things together with duct tape and  stretching to the breaking point in their efforts to protect students as much as possible from the impact,” Green said to his former colleagues on City Council. “Most shameful of all, we know that our students know they aren’t getting a fair chance to succeed.”

School officials also have asked the state for $150 million in new revenue, and they have sought $95 million in concessions from the district’s unions.

Councilman Wilson Goode asked Green about alternatives if the new money doesn’t materialize.

“I don’t want to hear the School Reform Commission is agnostic about how the money gets there,” said Goode. “I want to hear where the money is going to come from, where’s plan B?”

“We don’t have taxing authority, so plan B based on the resources we are going to get is classes in excess of the 40 [students] Dr. Hite referred to,” replied Green. “So we are talking 43, 44 …  we are going to have no choice but to cancel contracts that are existing because there is nowhere else to go.”

Having 40 or more students in a class would be a recipe for disaster in Philadelphia’s public schools, said Councilwoman Cindy Bass.

“I just think that we have to do some things differently,” she said. “Change has to come, and I couldn’t agree more because we’re still doing things that we were doing 20 years ago, some things that we were doing 30 years ago.”

Part of the money the district is counting on is already earmarked to help build up the city’s diminished pension fund. And another possible source is a cigarette tax, which Green says only has a 50-50 chance of approval in Harrisburg.

Without the added revenue, Hite has warned that the schools next year will be “empty shells.” 

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