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Stimulus funding boost is not a sure thing

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With a burst of federal dollars from the economic stimulus bill, hopes are high that this year Philadelphia schools may finally make a real dent in resource gaps that have subjected its students to a lower standard of schooling for decades.

But it is also possible that the School District of Philadelphia will be forced to scale back plans for Phase One of its ambitious five-year Imagine 2014 blueprint.

The outcome will likely be determined by an escalating struggle over the state budget in Harrisburg. June 30 is the deadline for its adoption.

“The fundamental question right now is ‘Are people who care about kids and schools going to get organized and try to ensure that the assumptions we built our budget on become a reality?’” said District Chief Budget Officer Michael Masch.

The District is poised to adopt its $3.2 billion unified budget, which assumes an increase in expenditures of $314 million, an extraordinary 11 percent boost. But well over half of the total funding for that budget comes from Harrisburg.

The funds would permit major reductions in class size in elementary schools, support hundreds of new counselors for middle and high schools, pay for new personnel to speed up the notoriously slow evaluation process for special education, as well as funding about 40 other initiatives from the new District strategic plan.

The District’s spending parameters are based on Gov. Rendell’s 2009-10 budget proposal, which, despite the gloomy economic climate, continues to honor a 2008 commitment to six years of annual increases in education funding.

Standing in the way is the Republican majority in the state Senate, which wants to curb any increases in support for education.

Rendell plans to use stimulus funds to put through a second installment of significantly higher basic education funding. But the Senate countered with a budget that freezes state aid at current levels and uses $728 million in federal stimulus funds to replace rather than supplement the state contribution.

Funding advocates say the legislature should be following through on its own recent “costing out” study, which found that districts need more than $4 billion in additional funds to adequately educate all their students. Last year, legislators committed to achieving funding adequacy by 2014 through annual funding increases.

For Philadelphia and other districts, expenses go up every year, so a budget freeze would force severe cutbacks.

“Communities are still trying to recover from a 30-year system of education finance that actually contributed to their economic decline, as well as failing to provide a quality education for students,” explained Janis Risch, executive director of Good Schools Pennsylvania.

The District’s proposed 2009-10 budget has not been free of controversy, though planned initiatives like reducing class size and hiring counselors have been well received.

With its expected stimulus funds, the District has earmarked $16 million for upgrades to data systems for its human resources, finance, records, and facilities departments. At press time, the Notebook had not received an explanation from the District of some additional multi-million dollar increases for central office departments.

Parents United for Public Education, a local advocacy group, has questioned spending on administration and contracts, including the District’s plans to continue to spend $4.6 million for 80 employees of the Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT) who are on the District payroll.

After articles in The Inquirer exposing patronage and abuse at the BRT, SRC Chair Robert L. Archie, Jr. endorsed the calls to move these employees off the payroll but suggested the District could pay the city a service fee for them.

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