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Hite to Council: Borrow, or drastic school cuts inevitable

Flanked by education advocates, Philadelphia School District leaders on Tuesday urged City Council to increase borrowing to $55 million to stave off yet more draconian cuts in school staff and supplies.

Flanked by education advocates, Philadelphia School District leaders on Tuesday urged City Council to increase borrowing to $55 million to stave off yet more draconian cuts in school staff and supplies.

"Let's stop acting like these are other people's children. They are our children," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said at a noon news conference at School District headquarters. "Today, we're asking City Council to save the children of Philadelphia from significant budget cuts."

He spoke two days before Council is to meet for the last time before summer recess.

Council leaders last week said they would not borrow more than $27 million, and Tuesday's pleas from Hite and School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green did nothing to change that.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke again said that the district and the Nutter administration had refused to follow a plan Council approved last year to transfer $50 million to the district in exchange for a portfolio of shuttered buildings the city could then sell.

"They opted not to take that direction, so it's a self-inflicted wound," Clarke said. "The School District had an opportunity to access $50 million last year, and they chose not to do that."

Council is poised, however, to pass a bill this week to allow the city to borrow the $27 million the School District needs to finish the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The district asked to borrow $55 million and apply the extra cash to next year's $216 million deficit.

Clarke said "the conversation about the next deficit" should be focused on the General Assembly, where city leaders are seeking permission to enact a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to raise money for the schools.

"That is our singular focus at this point in time," Clarke said. "It should also be the School District's singular focus."

But Green warned Council not to wait for the state to save the day.

"Playing a game of chicken with the state when the stakes are our children and our schools is not the wise or responsible course," Green said.

The exchange is the latest volley in the ongoing school funding fight. The district says it needs $96 million from the city and state and in concessions from unions just to keep the schools running at a "woefully inadequate status quo," according to Hite.

The district has said it needs as much as $320 million to transform the struggling system. For the first time last month, the district did not approve a budget by May 31. It must act by June 30 to keep operating.

While school officials focused this week on Council, Hite said their efforts also are directed at the state - he plans to go to Harrisburg on Wednesday - and employee unions. The district on Tuesday sent a letter to Gov. Corbett and Mayor Nutter as well as Clarke.

Nutter, in a letter to Hite on Tuesday, wrote that he, too, supported the request for more borrowing.

Without the additional $28 million in borrowing by Council, the district would have to make more than $40 million in cuts, Hite said. Hundreds of teachers would be shed, and class size would increase, he warned. School police would be cut, which would affect safety. Schools would be less well maintained and lack adequate supplies, he said.

"Whether the schools can function properly after these cuts is still an open question," Hite said. "I do not believe they could."

District leaders said they were hopeful that Council members would change their minds. Green has.

His views of the district have changed since he became SRC chairman this year after serving on Council. "I have voted against taxes for the schools," he said. "Being here has absolutely changed my view on that. I think those were bad votes.

"I think we're at a level of funding that is not sustainable. Our good schools will deteriorate, and our bad schools will get worse, and we can't afford that as a city. We have to go up from here."

Not all Council members were against the additional borrowing.

"I would say we're still undecided" whether borrowing would be in the district's and the city's best interests, Majority Whip Blondell Reynolds Brown said. "That's an unanswered question at this hour because there's still a lot of discussions going on."

Marjorie Neff, the soon-to-retire principal of Masterman, one of the district's most prestigious magnet schools, said she was not giving up hope.

"I'm retiring, but I'll be around," she said shortly after standing behind Hite and Green at the news conference. "I'm not leaving this fight. Last year, I think a lot of us in the district believed that this would all work out, and it didn't. The district, the children, can't handle another year like we had this year."