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Excitement, but also funding concerns as kids return to Philly schools

Without a state budget, the district says it could eventually run out of money. There are also concerns about staffing.

Volunteer Andrea Foster (right) helps Saveena Branch (center) fill out paperwork at school district HQ as Branch’s daughter Rashaia Robertson looks on..
Volunteer Andrea Foster (right) helps Saveena Branch (center) fill out paperwork at school district HQ as Branch’s daughter Rashaia Robertson looks on..Read moreTom Gralish/Staff Photographer)

LIKE CLOCKWORK, tens of thousands of students will descend on the city's public schools today, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after saying goodbye to summer.

But another all-too-familiar tradition is the lingering concern about the district's funding - this time, due to the fact state lawmakers have not adopted a budget, meaning it cannot dispense dollars to the commonwealth's 501 school districts.

Superintendent William Hite has said if the budget is not passed this month, the district could eventually run out of money.

For parents like Elizabeth Roberts, they can only hope saner heads prevail.

"[It is] very much a concern for the safety of the school, teachers, and students," said Roberts, whose son will attend Wilson Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia. "I know [lack of funding] really affects art and music and extracurricular activities. Those are the first things to get whacked."

At some schools, the budget stalemate is already having an impact. A nonprofit organization, which runs an afterschool program at McKinley Elementary School in North Philadelphia, has informed the school it will not be able to start until October because of the lack of state funding.

"That's going to be a big adjustment for the parents because we're talking about a start time of mid-October," said principal Marilyn Mejia. The program, which has been at the school for 15 years, provides activities in science, technology, engineering and math - or STEM - along with arts and crafts, and homework help, she said.

"We will probably end up having a lot of kids that won't be picked up on-time because parents are working and they're going to have a hard time picking up the kids," she added.

Mejia said she is also concerned about the level of staffing again this year. While McKinley will have a nurse three days a week - compared to two days a week last year - it will again be without a school police officer.

This year will also be the first for Source4Teachers, a Cherry Hill-based firm contracted in June to hire substitute teachers. The contract requires the company to fill 90 percent of vacant classrooms by January or incur a fine.

Last week, Source4Teachers was reportedly still looking to hire 500 more substitutes, but the district said it is confident the company will be ready.

"We have been working closely with Source4Teachers and we are hopeful that they will be ready for the new school year with the substitutes needed to staff classrooms," district spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

There are expected to be some kinks in the new system, Gallard noted.

"We have to take into consideration this is a new service with a new provider, so I'm pretty sure we will see challenges in the first few weeks, but we hope that things will smooth out as we move forward," he said.

Despite the challenges, Mejia said teachers and staff are excited for the new year and will continue to do their best to make it work.

"The kids will be there, so we have to be ready," she said. "We just have to go with the flow."