With the loss of power of some of their biggest supporters in Harrisburg and the end of the cushion of federal stimulus money, the School District of Philadelphia is staring down a huge budget hole.
District officials said last night that next fiscal year's shortfall will be $234 million, all from the loss of stimulus dollars, but district sources with knowledge of the budget have placed the gap at more than $400 million.
A worst-case scenario has it reaching above $500 million, sources say.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and Mayor Nutter said in a conference call with reporters last night that it's much too early to speculate. "If there's a phase before preliminary, that's where we are," Nutter said.
"With a new governor, a change in the House, who know's what's going to happen. We have no idea what the governor is going to propose."
Ackerman said district officials would consider a variety of scenarios in the coming weeks.
But she said she's not willing to discuss the matter further than that. "One thing I know for sure is that the stimulus money is going away," she said. "That's all I'm prepared to talk about, and that is $234 million. It could be less than that."
The district's budget this year was $3.2 billion. The district will also have to deal with the changes in Harrisburg, including Republicans taking control of the House and state Rep. Dwight Evans' loss of the powerful Appropriations Committee chairmanship.
Gov. Rendell is also on his way out, and the annual push for more funding for districts around the state could go with him.
Rendell's successor, Gov.-elect Tom Corbett, has said that he won't necessarily make the same decisions when it comes to school funding.
"Rather than simply increasing the amount of tax dollars we send to underperforming schools, I will seek to enhance school choice by ensuring that education dollars can follow the students to an educational option," Corbett, a supporter of school choice, said during a discussion earlier this year with Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
Calls made after hours to Corbett's spokesman weren't returned last night.
Corbett will introduce his first state budget in early March.
Ackerman noted that lawmakers should take notice of how their "strategic spending" has paid off in higher academic student achievement. Much of the stimulus money has been spent on Ackerman's five-year Imagine 2014 plan, and summer school.
"We've gotten a good return in our investment in student achievement, a rise in test scores and the graduation rate," she said.
Aside from the loss of stimulus money, the district has other problems to deal with. Pension costs will increase 10 percent next year, and 29.5 percent the following year. Meanwhile, a rise in health-care costs will worsen the district's plight.
With this scenario, layoffs of school and Central Office staff may be inevitable, according to a source.
Despite the bleak forecast, other federal money, including the Education Jobs Bill, which grants $10 billion to states for K-to-12 education jobs, could help the district maintain a balanced budget for 2010-11 without teacher layoffs or program cuts.