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Parents vow to fight budget cuts

Street joins effort to show harm to schools

A group of parents and community representatives huddled with Mayor Street and a team of city officials for 90 minutes last night, preparing a proposal to present to the Philadelphia School Reform Commission this morning as it considers adopting a $2.18 billion spending plan with vast cuts.

The proposal, which was still being crafted last night, was expected to demand that the commission release information on the impact of budget cuts in the district over the last several years - information that the mayor and parents will then use to try to leverage more state and city funding, said parent Harry Levant, president of the parent association at Shawmont School in Upper Roxborough.

"We want to force public disclosure of the true impact of the cuts and how they're going to harm the children," said Levant, who was joined at the table by Greg Wade, president of the Home and School Council - the district's parents group - and others.

The latest development in the budget battle comes as the commission considers nearly $100 million in cuts and cost-saving steps to balance the spending plan.

Also yesterday, parent and student group leaders in the district alleged that the commission deliberated on the proposed budget cuts in private - a violation of Pennsylvania's open meetings law - and should delay passage of a budget until sufficient public input can be given.

Parents questioned how the commissioners could have produced a list of items to spare from the cut list if they had not deliberated in private. They also cited media statements by commissioners that they talked about the budget in private session and held meetings on it over the weekend.

The budget cuts and savings include fewer central office administrators, fewer outside contracts, and adjustments in health insurance increase estimates, among other items.

Parent Helen Gym said last night that parents had consulted with lawyers and were considering legal action if the commission proceeded with a vote on the budget, scheduled for 9 this morning at district headquarters, 440 N. Broad St.

"Pennsylvania law and your moral and public responsibility as caretakers of our children and students require you to remain an open and accountable body," the parents said in a joint statement.

Gym, who also participated in the meeting with Street, added in a telephone interview: "I think this is a process that they've become all too comfortable with."

Commission officials, however, maintained last night that the board did not deliberate in private or violate the law and planned to proceed with a vote on the proposed $2.18 billion budget.

The commission recessed its meeting on Tuesday to allow for more time to consider the budget and to design a process that will allow for more public input on the budget over the next several months, as amendments to it are considered.

"They were discussing their priorities as the SRC," said commission spokeswoman Carey Dearnley. "I think it's perfectly legal for them to discuss lower class sizes as a priority and ask staff to prepare a budget that meets their priority. I don't think that qualifies as deliberation."

When the commission took a break during Tuesday's six-hour session, commissioners got a briefing from staff on the budget document, but did not deliberate, she said. Most of the time was spent waiting for budget documents to be readied for a vote, she said.

The state Sunshine Act requires that "official action and deliberations" by a quorum be done at an opening meeting. The law allows exceptions for personnel, contract negotiations, purchase of property and consultation with an attorney over litigation or issues in which "identifiable complaints are expected to be filed" and certain other legally confidential matters.

Commissioner Martin Bednarek said last night that decisions on what to take off the proposed cut list were not made as a group. The chief financial officer talked with each commissioner privately about his or her priorities and developed the proposal based on that input, he said.

But Gym, Wade and others also complained that the commission didn't make the budget document available until about 6 Tuesday evening - nearly five hours into the meeting and long after some parents already had left.

Dearnley and the district's chief counsel, Sherry Swirsky, said the commission must adopt a budget by today under the city charter law. Not doing so could jeopardize the district's ability to borrow money and would force a shutdown of the district by the first week of July for lack of funds.

But Gym said she wasn't swayed by the argument and remained concerned about the impact cuts would have on the district.

The proposed budget outlines about $98 million in cuts and cost savings - a little more than $18 million of which have yet to be specified.

The budget restores funding for 100 teaching positions that were targeted to be cut. It does not cut nurses, counselors or librarians, although administrators said some of those positions could be in jeopardy if more than $80 million in new state and city funding does not come through. It also preserves JROTC programs and student success centers at the high schools, as well as the City Year program, which puts volunteers in the schools.

Proposed Budget Cuts

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission is expected to decide on cutting Philadelphia's $2.18 billion schools budget by nearly $100 million. The proposed cuts include:

Reduce central office staff: $14.1 million.

Aggressive reviews of enrollment at alternative schools, private special-education schools and charters: $13 million. The district believes that some of the schools are educating fewer students than enrollment numbers may indicate.

Sale of property: $11 million.

Reduction in contracted services: $8.8 million.

Funding for six outside managers of public schools, including the for-profit Edison Schools Inc.: $6 million, or about a third of the money spent on the providers.

Lowering the estimates for health insurance increases and a new provision that allows employees to opt out of district-provided health care for financial benefit: $6.8 million.

Charter school savings: $6 million. Several schools have deferred opening this fall.

Reduction in the number of retirees hired back on contract: $2.7 million.

Change in the vendor for the summer school curriculum: $2.4 million.

Elimination of Consumer Price Index increases for alternative and transition school providers: $2 million.

Elimination of some standardized testing: $2 million.

Elimination of 90 percent of the district's auto fleet, $1.1 million.

Moving training for teachers and professionals from Saturdays to during the week: $679,000.