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Phila. School District approves $2.3 billion budget

The Philadelphia School District yesterday adopted a $2.3 billion budget with few painful cuts, but $5.9 million left to chop down the line.

The Philadelphia School District yesterday adopted a $2.3 billion budget with few painful cuts, but $5.9 million left to chop down the line.

The spending plan represents about a $109 million, or 5 percent, increase in spending over the current $2.19 billion budget.

Unanimously adopted by the School Reform Commission, the 2008-09 budget means art or music instruction for every school and smaller class sizes in the lowest-performing elementary schools.

Question marks remain, however. District officials assume that they will get an $80 million bump from Gov. Rendell's budget, which has yet to be passed. Commission chairwoman Sandra Dungee Glenn called the budget an improvement over the current one, but acknowledged it was not a sure bet.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Dungee Glenn said. "We have a lot of work to do before the state's budget is passed." The current-year budget includes approximately $1.3 billion in state aid. The district is seeking about $1.4 billion for the 2008-09 school year.

The new budget also includes $38.9 million in cuts to close a deficit in the district's preliminary budget, adopted in March.

The biggest chunk of that comes from a change in timing of state funds. The district will realize $14.3 million in savings because the state will accelerate payment of aid. Previously, the district had borrowed money until state funds came through.

Savings also were realized: $3.4 million from the city from delinquent tax revenue, $900,000 in new revenue from the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and $4.2 million in renegotiated contracts with alternative-education providers.

The district also will gain $1.2 million by cutting 75 percent of the money now spent on hiring retired administrators as consultants or interim district employees, $4.8 million by selling buildings, and $5 million through sharing services with the city.

It will realize smaller savings by cutting the special-education transportation budget 1 percent ($300,000), reducing professional-development contracts ($200,000), and moving the administration of the student teacher program from an outside vendor to an in-house job ($400,000).

The district also will save $1.4 million by sending 15 principals currently on special assignment back to schools.

The budget includes no money for raises next year for the district's five unions, all currently negotiating new contracts. Their pacts expire in August.

Wayne Harris, the district's budget director, defended that decision.

"This is just a budget," Harris said. "Budgets are built on assumptions."

Harris said the district would have to adjust if raises were negotiated. He would not speculate on how big a hit the budget could take after new contracts were signed.

"We have projections, but obviously we're in negotiations, so I'm not going to say that," he said.

The commission left for incoming schools chief Arlene Ackerman the job of finding $5.9 million to cut.

She said she would study the situation carefully, keeping one priority in mind.

"My goal," Ackerman said, "will be keeping those cuts as far away from students as possible."

There is no deadline for her to make the cuts, officials said.

Harris said that even though some cuts remained to be made, the district had met its legal obligation to adopt a balanced budget.

"This is allowed by state law for school districts," Harris said.

Few members of the public were on hand to see the budget adopted.

Greg Wade, president of the Home and School Council, said that although meetings had been held, parents by and large were not engaged.

"The parents didn't have a say in where the money was going in our schools," Wade said.

Ackerman has promised better public engagement and transparency in her administration.

Michael Masch, named yesterday as Ackerman's new chief business officer, will formally start his new job July 1.

He expressed confidence yesterday that Ackerman would do a good job in finding the $5.9 in cuts.

"She's determined to be a good steward of the dollars entrusted to her, and I am determined to help," he said.