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District seeks funding from City Council, Nutter

School District officials told Council members in private meetings Monday that they need the city to provide at least $50 million to $55 million to help close their enormous budget gap.

School District officials told Council members in private meetings Monday that they need the city to provide at least $50 million to $55 million to help close their enormous budget gap.

Council members and the Nutter administration seem willing to help, particularly to stop cuts in full-day kindergarten, transportation, and alternative schools.

But how a city with its own tight budget can aid the district remains to be negotiated - most likely behind closed doors - while the clock is ticking for Council to pass a budget by June 30.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her team are scheduled to testify before Council today, but several members said they do not expect her to ask for a specific dollar amount or suggest a remedy.

"They won't ask," said Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who attended one of Monday's briefings. "They'll just put the problem out there."

District officials also have been in discussions with Mayor Nutter's administration. After winning the Democratic primary last week, Nutter promised "to devote the bulk of my time and effort to making sure [the city's children] get the resources they need."

The mayor has not staked out a position on helping the district with its current money woes, but his spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the mayor finds cuts to transportation, full-day kindergarten, and alternative schools "troubling."

"The mayor has been very concerned," McDonald said. "He's been working steadfastly with the school district for several months now on these issues."

Ackerman and her top deputies gave Council members their first detailed look at the district's $629 million budget shortfall Monday.

The meetings were held in the Council president's office in small groups, so that a quorum of members would not be present, forcing the discussions to be open to the public.

Ackerman was joined by School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery, and chief financial officer Michael Masch.

They told Council members that the $50 million to $55 million could be raised through some combination of increased revenue and shared services, said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chairwoman of the education committee.

They did not suggest how the city could increase revenue for the schools, Blackwell said, but Council members "seemed poised to help."

"There are no solutions . . . It's still wide open," she said.

Restoring full-day kindergarten and transportation services are the district's top priorities, Masch said.

The district's job Tuesday, he said, is to assure Council that officials have done their best to "balance the budget with the least possible harm to parents and children and the community."

"For them to provide us with additional funding is not going to be easy, and we recognize that," he said.

About 30 percent of the district's budget comes from city revenue sources, including a portion of the property taxes and a liquor-by-the-drink tax. The district's proposed 2011-12 budget is $2.8 billion.

One way to raise revenue would be to shift the millage rate, which determines how property taxes are divided between the city and the schools. While shifting the millage rate would have no effect on taxpayers, doing so would take money away from the city.

Council or the mayor also could suggest raising the school district portion of the property tax - something that could be done as an amendment after the city budget is passed.

"If they talk about a tax increase, somebody's got to introduce it," Blackwell said. "Who's that going to be? . . . It's going to be interesting to see what happens."

Blackwell, as chairwoman of the education committee, would be a likely candidate, but she said, "If I have to do a tax increase, I go kicking and screaming."

Several parents spent part of Monday lobbying Council members to restore funding.

"This is a massive budget deficit, and we realize there are going to be painful cuts," said Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education. "But we've been trying to set priorities, because we feel the district has not been. It feels like a lot of the targeting is toward essential services for children, and it feels manipulative."

Parents United is advocating a millage shift to boost city funds to the district.

A petition urging Council to fund transportation costs - yellow school buses and subsidies for public transit - had about 800 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

"Without the free transportation, I'm not sure that I'd be able to afford sending all of my children to school," one parent wrote.

Public comment on the school district budget is set to go before Council on Wednesday.

Time is short for Council to act - both the city and the school district have May 31 deadlines for passing their budgets. Council's summer recess also is looming in about a month.

"It's very difficult to do what we need to do in the next four weeks," said Majority Whip Darrell L. Clarke. "Who knows? Maybe we'll be here even longer."

Council already has acknowledged that it's going to blow the May 31 City Charter budget deadline. If there is no budget by July 1, the city cannot spend money.

"It's late in the game," Blackwell said. "I'm really worried about it."