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SRC to OK $2.9 billion financial statement

The Philadelphia School District is projecting a budget of $2.9 billion next year — a forecast that banks on $264 million in new city and state money that is not assured.

The School Reform Commission was set to adopt a "lump sum" budget statement Thursday that would pump more money into city classrooms rocked in recent years by cuts. It would represent a 10 percent increase over last year's spending plan.

But the plan relies on $159 million in new money from the state and $105 million from the city, sums that have been proposed by Gov. Wolf and Mayor Nutter, respectively, but which would have to be approved by skeptical lawmakers.

Without the new city and state money, the district would face an $85 million deficit due largely to fixed costs such as charter school payments, pensions, and health care rising faster than revenues, but Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski said the district was aiming high.

"Our target is not to balance the budget — our target is to get to $264 million in new revenue," Stanski said. "We desperately need it. The status quo is just not adequate for our students."

Additional dollars are crucial to the execution of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s blueprint for moving schools forward after several years of crippling cuts, officials said.

The bulk of the additional funds — about 75 percent — would be sent directly to schools, with principals making the call on what they'd like to use the money for: nurses and counselors, for instance, art or music programs, tutoring, Advanced Placement classes, or more teacher training.

Principals are now sketching out their 2015-16 budgets, and setting priorities for what they would do with new money if it is approved, Stanski said.

The new city and state money would be a boon to the district, and officials are grateful for it, but Stanski also noted that it comes with risks.

In Pennsylvania, payments to charter schools are based on the prior year's per-student district cost, so if the district boosts its spending considerably in 2015-16, it would be required to increase its charter spending the following year.

Without state-level charter relief, the district would send $96 million more for the same number of students in charter schools in 2016-17, Stanski said.

The lump-sum adoption is the first step in a long budget process that culminates in final adoption of a spending plan, currently scheduled for May 28.

The SRC also signed off on several bond transactions on Thursday.

It took advantage of low market rates to re-finance some existing bonds, key to a district with a high debt load — about 10 percent of the school system's budget is spent on debt service.

The refinancing saves the district $3.3 million annually.

The SRC also approved selling about $50 million in new bonds, mostly to pay for new information technology and purchase new school buses. The annual cost to the district for the new bonds is about $3.7 million, Stanski said.