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More questions than answers on funding for Philly schools

District officials are not sure how much money they will get from the city and state with less than three weeks until they must pass a budget.

The SRC's Marjorie Neff and Bill Green expect at least a short-term fix to help close the district's $85 million deficit. (RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
The SRC's Marjorie Neff and Bill Green expect at least a short-term fix to help close the district's $85 million deficit. (RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read more

THE CITY'S public school system is once again stuck in no man's land, otherwise known as a new budget cycle.

The city charter requires the school district to adopt its budget by May 30, but funding from the city and state are a giant question mark at this point, leading to the possibility that the district might violate the charter and go past its deadline for the second straight year.

"I can't see how the district would conceive of passing a budget by May 30," Bill Green, a member of the School Reform Commission, the district's governing body, said in a recent interview.

Green, a former councilman, pointed out that City Council won't tackle the school-funding issue before Tuesday's primary election and that state budget talks are expected to drag into the late summer.

In a similar situation last year, the SRC opted to wait until receiving assurances from Council on a sales-tax extension and other measures before passing a budget in late June.

Green predicted that Council and the mayor would agree on a short-term fix to help close the district's $85 million projected deficit while they wait on the state, but no one knows for sure.

"With respect to Philadelphia, I expect Council really wants to provide Hite with the money he needs, but they clearly want the state . . . to step up and be part of it," he said.

More important than the SRC's deadline is securing the money needed to avoid another doomsday scenario for the city's 200-plus public schools.

SRC chairwoman Marjorie Neff said she doesn't know what will happen, but she is more optimistic about a funding increase than last year.

"I think that there's a recognition of the need, and I'm feeling more confident that will translate into dollars," she said.

"I don't know how much money that will translate into, but I think certainly the School District of Philadelphia and I know our school districts across the state are articulating to legislators in Harrisburg what the money is needed for."

Waiting for Superman, sort of

Last fall, the district was in the precarious position of opening the doors on the first day of school without knowing exactly when their funding would run out. State lawmakers finally authorized a $2-a-pack cigarette tax for the city in September, which provided the lifeline to avoid further drastic cuts.

This year, Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, has put about $159 million in new money on the table for the district, while Mayor Nutter has proposed a 9 percent property-tax hike to raise $105 million, but the proposals need approval from a Republican-controlled Legislature and Council, respectively.

Council President Darrell Clarke took issue with the notion that the election would have any bearing on Council's support, but he would not say whether the legislative body supports Nutter's proposed tax hike for schools or has discussed alternatives.

"We don't have a consensus on any of that at this point," Clarke said. "We are in the midst of the budget process and we will, as we always do, come forward with some support of schools. At this point we're not sure what that will be."

Senate GOP leaders in Harrisburg sent letters to school districts warning them not to count on the governor's proposed funding, which was viewed as a sign that budget talks could get tense.

"Any speculation as to what we may or may not do is premature," Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, said recently. Kocher said any type of increased funding for education would likely come in the form of pension relief.

Without any guarantees from Harrisburg or City Hall, district officials are trying to prepare for every scenario. They instructed school principals to craft budgets based on two possible outcomes: a) that the district gets enough money to plug the deficit; or b) that all the proposed money from the city and state - about $264 million - comes through.

According to Matt Stanski, the district's chief financial officer, they are also exploring a scenario in which the state budget is delayed until August or September.

"We would more than likely have to continue with the status quo and then ultimately have to make adjustments if that is approved," he said.

The city is required to pass its budget by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. By that point, the district would at least have half of the funding puzzle solved.

If the gap is not filled, Stanski said, the district would be forced to make more layoffs and increase class sizes - unthinkable moves given the cuts of the past few years. He could not estimate the number of potential layoffs.

"Schools are bare-bones, central office is bare-bones. Any cut we would make would impact dramatically the services we would provide to students," he concluded.

Avoiding disaster

District officials will call on parents and supporters to once again lobby Council and state lawmakers to help avert another crisis. Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and a former policy adviser under Gov. Ed Rendell, said she is concerned such a crisis could happen.

"If I'm worried, I'm worried things are going to get worse," Cooper said. "And obviously it can't get any worse - we've already been identified as the worst district in the nation," she said, referring to a recent report that said Pennsylvania had the largest funding disparities in the country.

Cooper noted, however, that Gov. Tom Corbett's convincing loss in November was a referendum on the cuts to education funding since 2011. Given that, she expects the state to provide more money for schools, to some degree.

"Everybody knows why Tom Corbett lost," she insisted. "Everybody."