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SRC budget: 'Punting on difficult decisions'

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Rather than commit to yet another round of layoffs and yet another increase in average class sizes, the School Reform Commission approved a $2.5 billion “placeholder” budget Monday evening that banks on $93 million that it doesn’t yet have.

With budget negotiations still underway in Harrisburg, District officials say they’re hoping legislators will soon come to an agreement and fill the gap.

“Hopefully, within the next week or so, we’ll have revenue,” said SRC Chairman Bill Green. “We’re really punting on difficult decisions by passing this placeholder budget.”

Among the slender remaining hopes is that the state will authorize a $2-per-pack cigarette tax in the city. That tax is not included in the budget approved by both houses of the General Assembly in Harrisburg late Monday – a budget that is actually worse for education funding than early versions, but is also not yet a done deal.

Gov. Corbett is for now withholding his signature, seeking votes for his plan to cut state pension costs.

But if the extra millions aren’t found before the budget is complete, Green and Superintendent William Hite said they may choose not to open schools in September, rather than bring students into what Hite says could be unsafe conditions.

“The harm for children now is, in my opinion, irreversible, irresponsible, and it’s not something we can continue to do year after year,” Hite said. “I have no intention of putting children in those options.”

A budget based on current revenues would force the District to implement a wide range of cuts to all sorts of services, including special education, transportation, facilities and more, District finance chief Matthew Stanski told the SRC on Monday evening.

Most prominently, the District would be forced to lay off about 1,300 workers – including 800 teachers – and raise class sizes to 37 in elementary grades, and 40 or more in high school. Such cuts would save about $58 million.

“The impact now becomes harmful,” Hite said. “We’re talking status quo minus $93 million. There aren’t any more places to cut. … This will require additional revenue.”

The placeholder budget matches a request by Mayor Nutter, made in a letter sent earlier Monday to the School Reform Commission. Nutter’s top education aide, Lori Shorr, said she’s particularly concerned by the prospect of larger class sizes. Those increases would be inevitable if the District is forced to close the $93 million gap on its own, she said.

“That’s really all that’s left [to cut], and that’s not something any of us believes would be good for kids, particularly in the large comprehensive high schools,” she said. “They’ve lost so many staff, to take class sizes up to that level seems like a really bad idea for the city.”

Green called on legislators of both parties to compromise – Republicans on funding, and Democrats on the governor’s proposed cuts to state employees’ pensions.

“Typically the way things work in a legislative body is there is compromise, and nobody gets what they want, and everybody gets a piece of what they want. We can’t afford as a district for either side to stand on principle,” he said.

Green has said he would never “embarrass” the governor who appointed him, and although he and the SRC have called for increased funding, they have refrained from publicly criticizing the governor during this budget season.

However, Green said Monday that he would back Hite if Corbett’s final budget leads the superintendent to keep schools closed in September.

“If you tell me that children will not be safe,” Green said to Hite at one point during the meeting, “I will follow your advice.”

Hite said that even with the current $93 million gap, passing the “placeholder” budget was a better step than launching a series of painful and expensive layoffs that might later be reversed.

“Layoffs, in and of themselves, cost a lot of money, and that could be millions of dollars that we would be on the hook for,” Hite said. “There’s still a lot of things in play.”

Commissioners voted unanimously for the placeholder budget, with only a few questions and comments.

Only Commissioner Wendell Pritchett allowed himself to share a moment of frustration: “We have made tons of difficult decisions over the years. We’ve closed 31 schools, we’ve laid off 5,000 people,” he said. “It would be nice to be joined by some other adults in some other positions.”

That wasn’t enough for Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and activist. With many local education advocates lobbying in Harrisburg, she was one of the few present at Monday’s sparsely attended meeting. The lack of heat on Corbett himself from Green and his fellow commissioners left her frustrated and angry.

“I’m in a bad mood,” she said. “None of them said anything that puts their neck on the line, or their appointment.”

After the vote, Hite repeated his hope that someday, the District will be able to end these annual budget battles.

The process has always been known for insider horse-trading, but this year the politics are more nakedly exposed than usual, with Corbett publicly demanding Democratic support for his pension plans, in exchange for school funding.

The long-term solution to such politicized budgeting, Hite says, is not just a bigger budget but steady, recurring revenue streams.

Such sources, however, are far from becoming reality.

Although Hite cited two in Philadelphia – real-estate and sales taxes – in Harrisburg, the closest thing to a long-term funding solution lies in the hands of a newly created House commission on education funding.

Green said that commission plans to deliver a new funding formula next year. He’s optimistic that it could bring some rationality to the process, but the history of such formulas in Pennsylvania is unpredictable; one was created under former Gov. Ed Rendell, but legislators abandoned it as soon as Corbett took office. 

In the long run, Green said, Philadelphia’s best hope lies not in legislative solutions but economic growth.

“I would say the pie has to grow in order for funding to come into the places that are most needed,” Green said. If state revenues grow, he said, legislators might be able to find the $214 million needed to implement Hite’s “Action Plan” for districtwide improvements.

“It’s not unrealistic to think that in a couple of years, we can actually put the best team in public education on the field and let them execute their plan,” said Green.

But in the meantime, District officials are faced with a much less pleasant reality. Finding the missing $93 million would only bring them back to the current status quo, which advocates and officials alike have called inadequate.

With that in mind, veteran advocate and retired teacher Karel Kilimnik urged the commissioners to take the fight directly to Corbett. 

“Depriving students of education is a basic human rights abuse,” she said. “Evidently the governor and his allies disagree. I’m hoping that can overcome your association with him. … None of you would send your children to a school with an ‘empty shell’ budget. Don’t expect other parents to do the same.”

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Bill Hangley Jr.

@BillHangley
Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook.