At its first voting meeting of the new academic year, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission heard from parents and staff about the effect staff cuts and resource shortages are having on schools.

Ruth Garcia, one of 16 itinerant counselors, said she was now responsible for more than 3,700 students at eight schools.

She asked the SRC how itinerant counselors could be expected to help that many students with their academic, personal, and social issues and assist special-education students.

Garcia said she had learned earlier in the day that students at one of her schools had been affected by neighborhood shootings over the weekend. But she said the principal could not reach her because she did not have a district cellphone or laptop.

"My concern is for the students . . . for our schools and the possibility of legal ramifications of this," she said.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he wants to rehire more counselors once the district gets more money. He also said the district would explore providing the technology and communication to help the itinerant counselors do what he called their extraordinarily difficult jobs.

After a lengthy presentation and debate about the long-term economic consequences, the SRC voted, 4-1, to pass a resolution that would encourage the city and state to add and extend Keystone Opportunity Zones that provide city property-tax abatements for owners for 10 years. Property owners would be required to provide payments to the district in lieu of taxes to lessen the impact on district finances.

City officials estimated that the payments could generate an additional $2 million over 10 years.

By the same 4-1 margin, the commission signed off on the creation of a hotel tax-increment financing district to encourage development of a 700-room hotel at 15th and Chestnut Streets.

Alan Greenberger, the city's deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said a resolution for the hotel-tax plan would be submitted to City Council. He said state law required the SRC to give its approval first to the plan, which would provide tax incentives to the developers.

He and other city officials said that if approved, the hotel would provide the district an additional $12.3 million in tax revenues over 20 years, compared with the $1.5 million that would be generated over that period from the parking lot on the site now.

Commissioner Joseph A. Dworetzky cast the dissenting vote on both measures. He said he was not comfortable voting for the resolutions without obtaining an outside analysis to determine whether the district had obtained the best deals it could. He said he was especially troubled given the district's financial crisis and after listening to Garcia's testimony.

Commission member Wendell Pritchett, who is on the SRC's finance committee, said the committee had been examining the proposals for months. He said he believed both would help generate needed revenue for schools.

Also Monday, the district announced an initiative to respond more quickly to concerns and questions from parents and families.

Called AskPhilaSD, the effort will provide answers to frequently asked questions from departments that are contacted the most. It can be found at

In a statement, the district said also said it had revised the menu options on the main phone line (215-400-4000) "to more quickly connect parents with customer service representatives. Questions and concerns that are not resolved on the first phone call will be given ticket numbers, entered into the Parent Call Center records, and assigned to a customer service representative to ensure that the issue is accounted for until it is settled."