Gambling on ongoing budget negotiations in Harrisburg, the School Reform Commission on Monday night adopted a $2.6 billion budget with a gigantic question mark.
The placeholder spending plan means the Philadelphia School District will not need to lay off 1,300 workers or swell class sizes to 40 and beyond - yet. But it contains a $93 million gap that needs to be filled either with revenue or, if state legislators do not come through, cuts.
The reductions, including the layoffs, bigger class sizes, and fewer student supports and security measures, would leave the district in such rough shape that schools might not open as planned on Sept. 8.
"It's not acceptable, and we have no intention of creating that kind of environment," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said at a special SRC meeting Monday. He called the harm that could be done "irreversible."
The commission took the course urged by Mayor Nutter, who asked the SRC to anticipate good news from Harrisburg. Without it, he said, there would be "cuts that are so painful that they raise serious questions about whether it is safe to open schools."
In the state Capitol, legislators continued to work into the night Monday. House Republicans had been holding up a $2-per-pack cigarette tax in exchange for pension changes that Philadelphia's Harrisburg delegation was refusing to vote for, but it appeared late Monday that the cigarette tax might be revived. Proponents said it would allocate $80 million for city schools.
Hite and SRC Chairman Bill Green had been lobbying hard for money above the $93 million so that Hite could begin to make some improvements in the district, focusing on such areas as early literacy. But Green acknowledged that the best the district could hope for at this point was "an unfortunate, status-quo education budget."
After several rounds of painful losses, many city schools did not have full-time counselors or nurses or adequate supplies last school year.
"We're standing in the middle of the battlefield with both sides taking shots, and the only people that are getting hurt are the children and families of Philadelphia," Green said.
Commissioner Wendell Pritchett was also frustrated. The SRC has closed dozens of schools in recent years, and shrunk its workforce considerably, too.
"There are other people who are not making difficult decisions to support our kids," Pritchett said.
The SRC was supposed to pass a budget by May 30, but in an unprecedented move, it refused to do so. The Monday deadline was real, though - without a spending plan in place by Tuesday, the district could not spend money.
Matthew Stanski, the district's chief financial officer, presented the SRC with a grim list of cuts that he and Hite were not recommending making now, but that could come back on the table if Harrisburg does not come through with the full $93 million. Beyond the layoffs and class size increases, there would be cuts to alternative education, transportation, school police, and facilities spending.
Though most reductions are being held off, some will happen regardless, Stanski said - about $15 million will be saved in all, mostly through some trims to debt-service costs and special-education services. Officials said they would not fill some vacant special-education teacher positions, and would combine some other employees' functions.
Last year at this time, when the district faced a $50 million deficit, officials laid off more than 1,000 employees, including every school counselor and secretary. Some were called back.
Hite and Green said they did not want to take that step this year, in part because layoffs have a price tag, too - unemployment and termination-pay costs.
But they noted that if their gamble does not pay off, the district will be in much worse shape than it was last summer, when officials said they would not open school without $50 million in additional funds that the city eventually produced.
At one point in the meeting, Green turned to Hite.
"If you tell me that schools are not going to be safe and children won't be learning," Green said, "I will follow your advice, whatever that is."
Speaking at the meeting, retired district teacher Karel Kilimnik told the SRC she backed its decision to not make the $93 million in cuts.
"Education is the bedrock of democracy," Kilimnik said. "Depriving our children of education is a basic human-rights abuse."
Green and Hite thanked advocates - including many who typically butt heads with them - for their hard work in Harrisburg. Even as the SRC met, Philadelphia education activists were on Day Five of a sit-in at the state Capitol. Nutter spent part of his day there, too.
"We wish our delegation and the mayor all the success they can have," Green said.