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Painful cuts on the way as District faces shortfall

With state aid slashed, the gap between expenses and income may force total reductions of more than 15 percent.

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

While activists continue to protest the education budget proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett, a sense of doom is spreading across Philadelphia schools as many doubt the system can close an enormous funding shortfall without slashing staff and eliminating many core programs.

School districts in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are dealing with the fallout from a national movement to cut government spending, but Philadelphia’s predicament is extreme. The governor’s $1.19 billion reduction in preK-12 education funding slams the District with a quarter of the total cutbacks ($292 million), even though the system has only one-tenth of the state’s students.

"There will have to be changes, and they are going to be painful," said Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch.

District officials said the gap between expenses and revenue for next year is $465 million, or 15 percent of its total budget, largely due to those state funding reductions and the loss of federal stimulus dollars.

But that figure does not include projected cost increases from upcoming, contractual wage and benefits changes totaling at least $68 million more, costs they hope to negotiate downward. [Update: The District provided a revised estimate of $629 million as the size of the budget gap when the "lump sum budget" was adopted March 30.]

"We’re going to talk to every one of the labor unions," said Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery, who added that District employees have been "phenomenal" in improving academic outcomes.

The District’s first task is to reduce staff and spending in the central office by 30 percent.

"Each department will be responsible for completing any required layoffs by June 30," said a District spokesperson, who added there will be flexibility in whether the layoffs will be phased in. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is also requiring herself and her cabinet to take furlough days, but that will save only $600,000.

Because central office costs represent only 6 percent of total spending, these cuts will fill less than one tenth of the gap, still leaving the District with a half-billion dollar problem.

So it seems inevitable that schools, where most of the money is spent, will face deep staffing and spending reductions that could reach 15 percent or more. Budgets for individual schools have been delayed but will be finalized in April.

In a blog on the Notebook website, retired administrator and University of Pennsylvania education professor James "Torch" Lytle estimated that for the District to achieve the necessary budget savings, the average school will face a cut of more than $1 million, with amounts varying by school size. Since the District has 257 schools, reductions averaging $1 million each would resolve only about half of the budget shortfall.

The District reports that $1.8 billion of its current $3.2 billion budget goes to school budgets either directly or through targeted central office allocations of personnel and resources. An average school in the District would have a $7 million budget and about 600 students.

Lytle, who also spoke at a Teacher Action Group (TAG) Forum on March 23, is among those arguing that the District should give principals and schools latitude in dealing with budget reductions. "Let the people on the ground make the decisions," he said.

Philadelphia is not alone in its pain, activists and legislators said. There are potential allies for a fight in Harrisburg to soften the state’s education spending cuts.

"Poor rural areas and other cities will be similarly impacted," State Rep. James Roebuck of Philadelphia told the TAG forum.

"Those who have a stake in these outcomes have yet to push back," he said. "The business community, which has talked about the need for an educated workforce and investment in education, needs to step forward."

Corbett’s cuts are a piece of his agenda to reshape the education landscape by creating more charter schools, offering vouchers to students in low-performing schools, changing teacher tenure laws, and instituting merit pay. New charter policies or a voucher bill could widen the District’s budget gap even more.

Advocates who fought for the creation of a need-based school funding formula and won it under Gov. Rendell don’t want to see it wiped away. Philadelphia and the rest of the state saw significant academic gains accompanying recent state funding increases.

"Cutting services isn’t the answer – we need more revenue," said Shelly Yanoff of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. She said the state could raise funds via fewer corporate loopholes, a tax on natural gas drilling, and a tax on smokeless tobacco. On the latter, "We are the only state that is not doing this and the industry is wrongfully targeting kids – so it’s the right thing to do."

Others are challenging Corbett’s 11 percent spending increase on prisons. The Campaign for Nonviolent Schools organized a "Fund our schools, not prisons" march and rally on March 30.

Whether a sustained challenge to Corbett’s budget and education agenda will emerge from Philadelphia and across the state will be a big question this spring.

Key District budget dates

  • Wed., April 27: SRC budget hearing (at close of afternoon meeting)
  • Early may (TBA): District community meetings on its budget
  • Tues., May 10, 10 a.m.: City Council hearings on District budget
  • Wed., May 11, 1 p.m.: City Council hears public testimony
  • Tues., May 31, 5 p.m.: SRC meets to approve budget