Philly school district facing another bleak budget

Part 104 of 103 in the series Educating America

SNIP, SNIP: Cuts are inevitable for Philadelphia schools next year.

By Maura Pennington | Watchdog.org

PHILADELPHIA — The School District of Philadelphia is facing budget cuts.

Superintendent William Hite previously issued a hopeful Action Plan 2.0 to transform schools at a cost of $320 million. But now that the budget for 2014-15 has been released, it’s looking as if the district will instead be coming up at least $96 million short.

Reductions in staff and services are inevitable in the face of a gap that size.

The district is in limbo as the Philadelphia City Council delays authorizing $120 million in tax revenue.

Without the $96 million in savings and $120 million from the city’s tax, the district will be in the red by $216 million.

“Short of the $216 million, our schools will go from insufficient to just empty shells that do not represent what I would consider a functioning school,” said Hite.

From where will the money come?

1. Layoffs

Close to 1,000 employees, including 810 teachers, may have to go. In addition, fewer staff will be available to manage deteriorating facilities.

Aside from the critical loss of labor, layoffs are not a highly effective method of savings.
To net $96.2 million, the district would have to cut $148.2 million in money lost because of the separation — from severance pay to forefeited PSERS reimbursements.

2. Instructional cuts and reduced services

Class sizes will probably increase by seven or eight students, setting them above the maximum contracted levels. This could limit personalized learning time and stress capacity of the district’s schools.

Special education will be trimmed by $9.1 million, down to the most basic, legally required services. With cuts to support staff and programs, several areas in the district’s budget are at risk for failing to comply with state and federal rules.

Promise Academies, which are already face a lack of commitment on the part of the district, will see an investment diminished by $2.4 million.

The transportation budget is being cut by $3.5 million, which will mean longer, more crowded commutes for students.

As if the $96 million shortfall weren’t enough, there are also several risks in the district’s ledger:

1. Sales tax extension

As mentioned above, the schools are banking on $120 million from a 1 percent sales tax extension the state authorized for the city of Philadelphia, although the City Council has yet to approve it.

2. Ready-to-learn grant

Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed additional education funding in the form of grants. Philadelphia is expected to receive $29 million, yet it must wait for the General Assembly to finalize the state budget. The district also is dependent on receiving a waiver to put the $29 million into the general operating budget. Without the waiver, there could limits to where and how the grant is spent.

3. Pension reform

The district awaits $10 million in savings from pending pension reform legislation. For the 2014-15 school year, pension and health-care costs will account for 11.3 percent of spending for district operated schools.

The district has to adopt its final budget in May.

Contact Maura Pennington at mpennington@watchdog.org and follow her on Twitter @whatsthefracas.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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