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Philadelphia schools face $15M more in cuts

Already rocked by deep program and staff reductions, Philadelphia public schools took another hit Thursday, when officials directed that $15 million more be cut to balance the district's shaky budget.

Already rocked by deep program and staff reductions, Philadelphia public schools took another hit Thursday, when officials directed that $15 million more be cut to balance the district's shaky budget.

The district's 249 schools will lose roughly $10 million - each absorbing a cut, on average, of 1.4 percent of its discretionary budget.

Sixty-nine nurse positions have been eliminated, saving about $5 million. And a program that pays staff members who serve as desegregation bus monitors is being ended, for a saving of about $600,000.

"This is not something that I or anybody really wants to do," acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II said. "But this is where we are. We've got to do it in order to get to a balanced budget."

More reductions, including layoffs and program eliminations, will be made in coming weeks, officials said. Those cuts - at least $14 million more is needed - will be announced "as soon as possible," officials said.

Officials have identified professional development, English-language learner services, psychologists, instrumental music, athletics, educational technology, and bilingual counseling assistants as areas where more cuts might be made.

A new committee to monitor the district's budget gap meets weekly; the first meeting was held this week.

Nunery and chief financial officer Michael Masch gave principals the latest budget news in a letter sent Thursday.

Nunery and Masch wrote that they "recognize how disruptive it is to make these kinds of cuts midyear. Please understand that these cuts are being made now, rather that at the beginning of the fiscal year, because we had earnestly hoped that more components of the original gap-closing plan could be successfully implemented."

Before this new round of cuts, the district had already shed about 3,000 employees and ordered program reductions to bridge a $629 million shortfall. This new round was necessary, Masch and Nunery have said, because they underestimated the costs of an early-retirement program and overestimated the amount of savings they could get from reopening union contracts, among other things.

Robert McGrogan, head of the district's principals' union, said it was "a tough day. These schools have already gotten hit so much."

Eileen Maicon, principal of Kensington International Business High School, was bracing for bad news.

"We're all on a very small budget to begin with," Maicon said. "The thought of more off is incredible."

On Friday, principals will learn of the specific cuts their schools will take - between 1 percent and 3 percent, with an average cut of 1.4 percent. Cuts will depend on school level and enrollment.

Principals will have the option of choosing the cuts themselves or leaving the decision up to the central office.

Classroom teachers cannot be cut midyear, but the cuts to individual school budgets could mean layoffs if principals decide to eliminate positions not mandated by school code or a collective-bargaining agreement.

The loss of nurses is "absolutely devastating," McGrogan said.

In the absence of a nurse, administrators typically dispense medications and provide nursing services.

A district spokesman said students' medical needs were considered when the nursing cuts - including laying off 51 nurses and leaving open 18 vacant jobs - were made.

"These cuts were made in a way which will allow us to keep current service levels for schools that have medically fragile students," said Fernando Gallard, the spokesman.

The district is moving from a ratio of 750 students for every nurse to 870-to-1. It's still well under the state's maximum allowable ratio of 1,500-to-1.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he intended to fight the district's plan, particularly cutting the nurses, which his union represents.

"There is no grounds for it," Jordan said. He said he would explore options with union lawyers on Friday.

The district also will halt a longtime program that paid school staff extra money to monitor students who take desegregation buses. The desegregation program will still exist, but the monitoring will be eliminated as of Dec. 9.

Masch and Nunery pledged to principals that they would be "reaching out to external organizations to seek additional financial support to offset these cuts wherever possible."

But McGrogan, of the principals' union, said no one was feeling optimistic.

"We knew this was coming," he said, "but still, to see it is devastating."