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Philadelphia schools raise shortfall estimate to $629 million, warn of major cuts

The Philadelphia School District's projected budget shortfall for the 2011-12 school year has ballooned to $629 million, and top administrators Wednesday outlined draconian measures they said they were prepared to take to balance it.

The Philadelphia School District's projected budget shortfall for the 2011-12 school year has ballooned to $629 million, and top administrators Wednesday outlined draconian measures they said they were prepared to take to balance it.

The district plans to cut the central office staff in half by eliminating 413 positions; reopen contract negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other district unions; reduce transportation and full-service meals; cut funding for art, music, and gifted education; reduce budgets for individual schools by an average of 13 percent; and increase class sizes and the number of students who are assigned to school counselors.

The district's fiscal year starts July 1.

Three weeks ago, Gov. Corbett proposed a $27.3 billion spending plan that would cut state support for public schools by $1.1 billion. At that time, district officials said they estimated that the district's budget gap after July 1 would be at least $465 million. And they anticipated cutting 30 percent of the central office.

But at a budget briefing Wednesday, Michael Masch, the chief finance officer, and Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery said analyses of mandated cost increases, such as contracted raises and charter school payments, had created an even more dire financial scenario.

Masch said the district had never faced a financial crisis like the $629 million funding gap, and he said districts across the state were reeling from the proposed cuts.

"What the governor has proposed is unprecedented," Masch said. "We cannot find a year in which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has proposed a reduction even close to what has been proposed for next year."

The Philadelphia schools alone will receive $293 million less.

As required by law, the School Reform Commission earlier Wednesday adopted a $2.7 billion lump-sum budget that reflects expected local, state, and federal revenue and begins the budgeting process for the next fiscal year.

The current year's budget totals $3.2 billion.

In an effort to reduce layoffs, the administration will announce an early-retirement and voluntary termination program in the next few weeks, Masch and Nunery said. Layoff notices will not be handed out until the district sees how many people sign up to leave.

"The thing that we have tried to do is inform the staff about what is going on," Nunery said. "In the next two to three weeks people will have a better sense of their position."

Masch said, "Even in the best case, we will be spending less than this year, and there will be fewer people working for us."

He outlined a series of spending cuts the district would have to implement to balance its budget.

Among other things, the cuts to central office staff will save approximately $52 million. The average 13 percent reduction in allocations for individual school budgets will save $61.3 million.

And the district hopes to save $75 million by reopening contracts with the district unions.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But Rob McGrogan, president of the union that represents district administrators, said the district had not talked to his Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, Teamsters Local 502, about reopening its collective bargaining agreement.

"CASA has had no formal - or informal - conversations related to renegotiating or opening a wage discussion," he said. McGrogan said he had learned the district wanted $75 million in savings from the unions only 30 minutes before it was made it public.

Nunery also said the district would ask the legislature to amend the charter school law to allow the district to trim payments to charter schools to save $57 million. Otherwise, he said, students in city charter schools would not face the 13 percent cut in resources affecting students in district-run schools.

More than 44,000 city students are enrolled in 74 charter schools in the city. Corbett's budget would eliminate a program that provides partial reimbursement for charter costs, which amounted to a loss of $110 million for the district.

Masch said the district was required by law to present a balanced budget, but he said Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's administration did not support the spending cuts that he and Nunery proposed Wednesday.

"This is not a budget that this administration endorses," Masch said. "We do not think it is a budget that is good for the children of Philadelphia or a budget that is good for this city or this state."

But he and Nunery said that if legislators approved the Corbett cuts and the district did not achieve all the savings the district outlined, even more draconian measures would be needed, including eliminating the instrumental music, athletic, and gifted programs; ending summer school; doing away with bilingual counseling assistants; and cutting additional teachers, counselors, librarians, and nurses, as well as school police and custodians.

In an e-mail to staff, Ackerman wrote Wednesday that the anticipated revenue shortfall amounted to 20 percent of the district's operating budget. She said the proposed cuts in state aid would "cripple education opportunities for our students."

At the briefing, J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, and other NAACP officials announced that a statewide rally to preserve funding for public schools will be held in Harrisburg April 26 to fight the $1.1 billion in cuts to public education contained in Corbett's budget.

"We reject that plan . . . because it is a violation of the children's right to get a good education," he said.

He said the cuts Corbett has proposed amounted to "attacking public education with a chainsaw."

And in announcing the rally he added: "We're standing at this microphone to make sure that Gov. Corbett and the legislature know that the NAACP is not going to sit still and watch this take place."