This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Bill Hangley Jr.
District officials met with City Council today to warn that unless Council, the state legislature, and the teachers’ union pitch in, next year’s “dire” budget will transform schools into bare-bones operations stripped of all but the most basic staff and programming.
But City Council President Darrell Clarke said, dire or not, there’s a long way to go before Council can find the $60 million that District officials are requesting as the city’s share to plug an unprecedented $300 million structural deficit.
“To suggest that there’s going to be any additional taxes … I think is a stretch at this time,” Clarke said. “I can personally say that without a significant increase in funding from the state, I don’t think there’s going to be any appetite at the local level to do anything.”
Council members repeatedly expressed concerns that although they came up with last-minute cash for the District in each of the last two years, there were no “significant” new state revenues to match. And this year, Clarke said, even if the state comes up with new funds, “I’m not sure at this point whether there will be local funding at all.”
Monday’s four-hour hearing was part of the city’s annual budget process, and it featured testimony from Superintendent William Hite, School Reform Commission chair Pedro Ramos, and Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski.
Council members asked questions that reflected both deep concerns about the impact of the District’s budget plans on students and communities, and persistent reservations about asking Philadelphia taxpayers to continue what Councilman David Oh called “throwing good money after bad.”
Clarke and other Council members also felt they should have a more “formal” request from the District that includes a suggested source for revenues.
“What do you want and how do you want it?” Clarke asked Ramos at one point, triggering applause and chants from the galleries. “You’re saying Council should be responsible for coming up with a strategy to get the funding?”
“Collectively, we’re all responsible,” Ramos answered.
“Hmm. I‘m not going to get the answer that I want,” Clarke replied.
“I agree you didn’t get a direct answer,” chimed in Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Clarke’s co-chair for the hearings.
“It was implied today that we’re supposed to determine how and where that money comes from,” Clarke said after the meeting, adding that he has yet to discuss District funding possibilities with City Finance Director Rob Dubow: “We are awaiting that conversation.”
But Clarke also indicated that raising the property tax or use-and-occupancy tax, the major city sources of District funding, are already off the table. He said he was open only to “nontraditional" sources of revenue like school bus advertising and increasing the liquor-by-the-drink tax.
Game of chicken with the state
Clarke struggled to extract specifics from Ramos on a few questions, such as whether and how District officials collaborate with other urban districts to lobby Harrisburg, and whom exactly Council members should be talking to there. He did win a commitment from Ramos to bring a Philadelphia delegation directly to Gov. Corbett in order to discuss privately what obstacles stand in the way of additional state funding.
Clarke said he trusted Ramos to follow through on his commitment. “Hopefully, we’ll have that conversation directly with the governor, so I can get a better understanding personally from him as to why additional revenues haven’t been forthcoming,” Clarke said. “He may have a reasonable explanation, but I just don’t know that at this time.”
The District’s huge financial hole is due largely to Harrisburg making decisions that resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars less coming into Philadelphia over the last two years. This happened through reduced basic education aid and the elimination of other sources of funding to the city, including reimbursement for charter school costs and the end of some Rendell-era educational block grants. Federal aid has also decreased.
This year, declining to build a spending plan on expected rather than actual revenues as had sometimes been done in the past, District officials prepared the doomsday budget that reduces schools to little more than a principal and the minimum number of classroom teachers required under the teachers’ contract.
During the hearing, Hite swung between two extremes, alternately warning Council about the grim future that the District currently faces — bankruptcy is not out of the question — and outlining plans to address Council members’ many concerns.
The hitch, of course, is that such plans will go for naught if no new funds are committed. Hite discussed District intentions about ensuring safety with security cameras, expanding career and technical education programs by 5,000 seats, introducing extracurricular activities for cyber-schooled students, and hosting get-togethers this spring and summer for students from closing and receiving schools. He discussed the possible improvements under the core curriculum and even a willingness to explore bringing more local food to school cafeterias.
But at the same time, he told Council repeatedly that the absence of new funding — including not only the $60 million from the city, but a requested $120 million from the state and $133 million in labor savings — will result in a District unable to provide students with an adequate education.
Concerns about test scores, safety, empty buildings
Over the four hours of back-and-forth, Council members and District officials touched on a number of subjects, including:
- Clarke asked for explanations of recent declines in districtwide test scores. Hite chalked up the drop to changes in test-taking protocols, including one in which students are no longer proctored by their regular teachers.
- Blackwell asked whether the SRC had a position on an elected school board. The SRC hasn’t considered the issue or voted on a proposal, so it has no “opinion” to report, Ramos replied.
- Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. requested a detailed breakdown of what the $60 million would provide — along with assessments of what $30 or $90 million would provide. “For the record, what are we getting?” Goode asked. Hite promised to deliver an analysis, adding that all new funds will go directly to school budgets, and among other things, will help support students’ transitions from the 24 schools that will be closing to their new schools.
- Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. pressed Hite on safety issues, particularly with students walking to new schools through unfriendly neighborhoods — “we’re talking generational conflicts,” Jones said. Hite promised — budget permitting, of course — detailed safety plans, new pushes for improved in-school culture, and security cameras trained on key spots.
- Councilman Jim Kenney pressed Hite on principal autonomy. “The problem I have is that in the past, [it’s] been, ‘Give us the money and let us figure out what to do with it.’ I’d rather give it to a principal,” Kenney said. “We would too,” Hite answered.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown pressed Hite for a strategy on disposing of empty school buildings. Hite told her that a process now being developed with the Nutter administration envisions moving properties within six months to a year.
- Reynolds Brown floated the idea of selling advertising on leased school buses. “At this time we don’t know whether we could take money from advertising on buses that we don’t own,” Ramos replied.
- Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez asked about the fate of plans to increase tax collections. Officials acknowledged that while they’d once planned for about 2 percent growth in the size of those collections, they’ve revised those expectations and expect collections to remain flat, but did not discuss details.
Council members touched on numerous other subjects, from charter school oversight to the impact of the federal sequester, but continually returned to the notion that the District’s budget, as proposed, will devastate neighborhood schools.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “Some of the stories we hear are outrageous.” Even if Council comes up with more funds, she noted, that doesn’t do anything but keep the District where it is. “This doesn’t advance our children any further,” Bass said. “How do we get to that? I’m still not clear on how our young people are going to move their education forward.”
Hite replied: “I can tell you how we don’t get there — we don’t get there by carrying a $300 million shortfall.”
Later, Councilman Mark Squilla asked bluntly, “If we get nothing, should we just close the schools?”
Hite didn’t answer directly, but conceded that the current budget will not provide enough to offer students what he considers a complete education.
Oh criticized the SRC itself, noting that it was created in part to handle a budget deficit that has only gotten “worse and worse and worse.” Oh said that although he voted for additional city funding last year, “I do feel that the SRC, if it doesn’t step up to the challenge of coming up with solutions [for] better educational outcomes, based on proven and not theoretical models, which is practical and affordable, then I can’t support more funding, because it looks like throwing good money after bad.”
Several Council members prodded Ramos for an assessment of the attitude in Harrisburg toward Philadelphia’s schools. Cautiously, Ramos described a mild thaw in the relationship. “The response has been somewhat consistent,” Ramos said. “There’s some recognition that there’s a limit” to what the School District can do on its own, he said. “Folks are no longer debating the need [for funds], just the feasibility.”
Clarke said that for his part, he hoped to get some better answers about the state’s position if and when he and Ramos meet with Corbett. Asked what the city could do for the governor in exchange, Clarke said he’d like to see the state acknowledge that the city is already doing its part, both in finding revenue and moving ahead with school closures.
“I’d like to have it counted the last couple years, when we put significant revenue on the table, without any significant dollars from the state,” Clarke said. “We’re prepared to work together — it’s essentially been the city stepping to the plate, but at some point you can’t keep going to the well.”