THIS YEAR'S PANIC over the school budget is likely to reach a head this week when City Council holds hearings Tuesday and Wednesday on the district's budget.

While it's hard to remember a year when there hasn't been a panic over the school budget, this year, the scale of the problem is of a different magnitude - even compared to the $186 million deficit in 2007-08 that prompted then-Superintendent Paul Vallas to resign. This year, the potential impact of up to $600 million in cuts will hit students hard: teachers and staff will be laid off, and all-day kindergarten and other programs will be greatly reduced.

A confluence of factors has created this double budget whammy for the schools: The expiration of federal stimulus money coincides with a state-imposed cut to the education budget. The district estimates that the funding from the state will be cut by $300 million, including $107 million in basic education funding and $110 in reimbursements for charter school enrollments.

How, and if, the city helps the schools make up the difference will be the focus of this week's hearings. That's not going to be an easy conversation. For one thing, the city's contribution to the school district - $193 million from a portion of the property tax - is unlikely to increase. Chalk that up to a freeze on property assessements, and a sluggish economy slow to improve real estate values. Last year, when the city boosted the property tax to balance its own budget, it did not increase the part that goes to the school district. So while the city will have to consider a property tax hike to help the schools, the public appetite for yet another hike is likely to be lukewarm.

And amid controversies over contracts, violence, and the SRC, the district is about as popular as a bedbug infestation. Which is a shame, because whatever complaints the district has coming, its fiscal crisis is not entirely of its own making. High charter enrollment - 22% of students are enrolled in charters - have had a steady and devastating impact on the budget. And while it's common to demonize Philadelphia, every district is struggling; most are about to cut staffing and instruction. The best way to understand the school's budget crisis is to attend one of this week's hearings. Tomorrow, the district testifies at 10 a.m.; Wednesday, the public testifies, beginning at 1 p.m. *