If Harrisburg doesn't come through with the state aid the Philadelphia School District is banking on, cuts to its newly adopted $3.2 billion budget could come from the classroom, officials said Wednesday.
The School Reform Commission approved a spending plan that pays for new labor contracts, bigger pension obligations, and $180 million for Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's strategic plan. The budget relies heavily on federal stimulus money and $1.68 billion in state aid - a figure that Gov. Rendell proposed but that the legislature has not approved.
State aid accounts for 55 percent of the district's budget.
Michael Masch, district chief business officer, defended the budget as "sound" and based on the best information available. He noted that the district had shown improved test scores for the last seven years.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) pointed to an April 27 letter to all Pennsylvania superintendents, in which state Republican leaders warned that there was "no guaranteed level of funding" and that the state's financial position had "changed significantly" since Rendell's proposal.
Last year, the district counted on Rendell's proposal and ended up having to make $144 million in cuts. The budget already contains efficiencies, Masch said, but more would be considered if Harrisburg doesn't come through.
"If revenue shortfalls can't be eliminated solely through operating efficiencies," he said, "we will consider changes that affect our educational programs, but only as a last resort."
Those might include rolling back initiatives to reduce class sizes and add counselors, scaling back summer school, and delaying proposed expansions for charter schools, Masch said.
The budget passed, 4-0. Commissioner David Girard-diCarlo said he supported the budget "reluctantly," and Commissioner Johnny Irizarry abstained.
Irizarry declined to immediately say why he did not support the budget.
While praising Masch and Ackerman for doing the best they could, Girard-diCarlo warned that the district could face hard times. The country has a "potential financial tsunami of almost biblical proportion" on its hands, he said.
"With that kind of scenario, I don't know how we can anticipate that we're going to get more money," said Girard-diCarlo, who urged the public to contact legislators to demand adequate education funding.
The commission also delayed a vote on the future of West Philadelphia High School.
The struggling school has been designated a "Renaissance" school, one of 14 that is to be radically restructured in the fall. The other 13 will be turned into charters or run by Ackerman, with longer school days and years, new programs, and mostly new teaching forces.
The fates of the other 13 were decided two weeks ago. West's was deferred until Wednesday to give the school advisory council more time to make a decision.
The council wanted Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now, a Baltimore nonprofit, as its provider, but Benjamin W. Rayer, the official who oversees the Renaissance process, said information about "a potential conflict of interest" involving a council member had come to light Wednesday.
"It's not a concern about any of the providers," Rayer said. "It's about the process."
He declined to elaborate, but said district staff would investigate.
If the issue is resolved, the commission could vote on a provider for West early next month.
In the meantime, many of the school's young staff, who initially wanted to stay at West, have decided to take jobs elsewhere.
Time is of the essence, Rayer acknowledged.
"I don't think that anybody would dispute that we make this decision sooner rather than later," he said.