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Philly's SRC approves nearly $3 billion budget

The School Reform Commission budget contains some victories for classrooms -- but comes with a major red flag.

The School Reform Commission adopted a $2.9 billion operating budget Thursday night that contains some victories for classrooms — but comes with a major red flag.

The spending plan will allow the Philadelphia School District to add 76 teaching jobs plus some counselors and bilingual aides to help students who are learning English. It also will allow the district to cover a cut to federal aid proposed by the Trump administration.

The spending plan's major caveat, however, driven in large part by rising charter and pension costs, is that spending is outpacing revenue. Officials have been warning that they will run a deficit beginning in 2018-19 that rises to $800 million over five years.

Without any taxing powers of its own, the district will have to again turn to the city and state, its major funding sources, to fill those gaps in the very near future.

"This is not long-term sustainable," said Uri Monson, the district's chief financial officer. "Our revenues are growing half as fast as our expenditures, and we're going to need help. We don't want to have the Chicken Little budget discussion."

The $2.9 billion budget represents a  6.7 percent increase over the current year's $2.7 billion budget.

The district did get a significant shot in the arm recently, with the city announcing $65 million in new annual money for the district, the result of a reassessment of Philadelphia's commercial properties.

Some of the $65 million could be used to secure a new teachers' contract.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has not had a contract for almost four years. Negotiations are ongoing, though PFT president Jerry Jordan has described them as "painfully slow."

The bulk of the $65 million will go to some investments aligned with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s academic priorities — chief among them raising the district's graduation rate and getting all of its students reading on grade level by age 8.

To that end, the district plans on hiring 47 teachers to end "leveling" in kindergarten through third grade. Through that process, a school's teachers are transferred when enrollment is under projection in October to other schools. It will also hire 19 teachers to end virtually all split classes through the district.

Responding to the voices of those in the community, officials announced Thursday that they would also hire 10 new teachers to instruct students whose first language is not English. They will also hire 18 counseling assistants, aides who help immigrant students and families navigate schools.

"Spending priorities have to be established by our communities," City Councilwoman Helen Gym said at the meeting, thanking Monson for the increased spending to help students whose first language is not English.

"Meeting the needs of those communities was highlighted to us," Monson said, adding that the district was taking more fiscal risk by adding the bilingual staff.  "We are trying to push the envelope where we can."

The school system will also set aside about $17 million to pay for teacher training and early literacy programs now covered by the federal Title II program. President Trump's proposed budget eliminates Title II funding.

Monson said that more federal funds could also be in jeopardy. The district's overall budget is funded about 50 percent by the state, 40 percent by the city, and 10 percent by the federal government. Much of that comes through the Title I program, which allocates dollars to schools that educate children living in poverty.

"We're on just a little more heightened watch on how Title I is distributed," Monson said. "There may be some more dollars at risk."

During the sometimes boisterous meeting, the commission also approved an amended application for Deep Roots Charter School, which plans to open in the  Harrowgate section in 2018.

DawnLynne Kacer, director of the district's charter office, recommended the approval of Deep Woods' amended charter application with a series of conditions. She said the founding group had addressed many of the deficiencies her office had spotted in its original proposal, including adding certified special-education teachers and teachers for students whose first language is not English.

But commission member Christopher McGinley said he still had deep reservations about the proposal for the K-8 school that aims to prepare students for selective colleges. The Temple University education professor and former suburban superintendent said that while some may feel that the application meets the standards outlined in the state charter law,  "my  opinion is that it doesn't come close to meeting an educator's standard."

Among other things, McGinley said the school said it planned to spend money to support its graduates in high school, "when every dollar should be spent supporting the high needs" of its students while they are at Deep Roots. He cast the lone dissenting vote.

The SRC also heard from students from Science Leadership Academy who said they were concerned that the district was violating a promise to work with them to find a replacement for their rented building that would keep the magnet school in Center City. A large contingent of students from Our City Our Schools Coalition also called on the five-member commission to begin  the process of abolishing itself by the fall.

Luke Risher, a student from Science Leadership and a member of the coalition, welcomed newest SRC member Estelle Richman and noted that it had taken months for the state Senate to approve her nomination by Gov. Wolf.

"We are excited to have a fully staffed SRC," Risher said, "because we think you all can plan a historic role in moving to abolish the SRC and giving our schools back to Philadelphia."