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Public school community urges Council to increase district's funding

Parents, students, advocates, educators, and religious leaders Wednesday implored City Council to increase city funding for schools to preserve full-day kindergarten, transportation, and programs that help dropouts earn high school diplomas.

Parents, students, advocates, educators, and religious leaders Wednesday implored City Council to increase city funding for schools to preserve full-day kindergarten, transportation, and programs that help dropouts earn high school diplomas.

Anne Pomerantz, head of the Home and School Association of the Powel School in West Philadelphia, summed up the key issue as Council digested the drastic cuts the School District of Philadelphia has outlined to deal with a $629 million shortfall next year.

"Right now, the $629 million question is: What will the City of Philadelphia do?" Pomerantz said during the second day of Council hearings on the district's proposed $2.8 billion budget.

Mayor Nutter said Tuesday he would support the district's request that the city increase its funding by as much as $100 million to help close the shortfall and save selected programs targeted for drastic cuts or elimination.

Currently, the city provides 30 percent of the district's $3.2 billion budget.

Nutter and Council members have said they were still trying to work out the details, but in the crowded Council chambers, the audience repeatedly called for the city - at the very least - to increase the district's share of property-tax revenue from 55 percent to 60 percent. The city raised taxes last year, but trimmed the district's share.

"We call on City Council to increase the district's share of the real estate tax," Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said.

Returning to the 60 percent split would provide an additional $55 million for the district's coffers, but some Council members have said the change would force the city to cut programs.

Though Council had plenty of questions when the district presented its budget Tuesday, members mostly listened during Wednesday's session, which began at 1:30 p.m. and continued into the night.

The hearing drew parents from across the city, including from Duckrey School in North Philadelphia; Greenfield in Center City; John S. Jenks in Chestnut Hill; Shawmont in Roxborough; Bache-Martin in Fairmount; Meredith in Queen Village; and C.W. Henry School in West Mount Airy.

Danita Bates, a parent activist at Duckrey, referred to Imagine 2014, Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's education reform plan, which is expanding next year despite the financial woes. "How can I imagine 2014 when I fear 2011 so much?" she asked. "Parents, it's time to step up."

Kevin Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia and father of two children in district schools, referred to the $292 million drop in state funding for Philadelphia schools, part of Gov. Corbett's proposed $1.1 billion cut in funding for schools statewide.

"Our children are caught in the middle of this debate," he said.

But several speakers questioned the district's spending priorities and criticized the decisions to target full-day kindergarten and art and music instruction and slash individual school budgets while continuing funding for components of Imagine 2014 and awarding contracts to testing companies and consultants.

Several, too, echoed statements Council members had made Tuesday, saying that if the city provided more money, it would demand greater accountability from the district.

Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education, urged Council to ensure funding for full-day kindergarten and free transportation for students and to reverse a 29 percent cut in discretionary funds for individual schools. She also pressed Council to impose a moratorium on all nonessential district contracts, the hiring of personnel, and funding to add or expand programs.

"There should be no blank-check bailout for the district," Gym said. "We want strings attached."

Council members also heard from a stream of students and recent graduates of the 13 popular "accelerated" schools that help at-risk students and those who already have dropped out to earn diplomas.

The district has informed the providers that operate the small schools under district contracts that it planned to close their schools and replace them with less-expensive programs in district schools.

The move is part of a larger reconfiguration of the district's alternative-education program that would save nearly $25 million.

Natalie Alicea, 19, a graduate of North Philadelphia Community High School, tearfully described the rocky educational path that ultimately led her to the accelerated school.

"They didn't let me give up on myself," said Alicea, who now attends Harcum Junior College.

She begged Council to keep North Philadelphia Community High School open to help students like her find their dreams.

While the hearing continued, a large contingent of students from the accelerated schools held a rally on Dilworth Plaza in support of continued funding.

Earlier, area religious leaders had rallied on the plaza for increased educational funding.

The SRC is scheduled to adopt a provisional budget Tuesday. Michael Masch, the district's chief financial officer, has said the SRC likely would adopt an amended budget at the end of June, depending on what the city - and Harrisburg - come up with.

Council has already said it would not meet the May 31 deadline outlined in the City Charter for passing its budget.

See a video from the meeting at