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Another year scraping together bare essentials

The District needs $200 million just to avoid a new round of cuts for 2014-15. It is unclear where the funds might be found.

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

With the new budget season gearing up, the School District is facing another year of instability and scraping together bare essentials while city and state officials argue over how – or , in the case of the state, whether – to provide stable, recurring funding sources.

“It’s dire, dire,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. “We have 116 nurses, 200 counselors, fewer than 400 art and music teachers [less than one of each per school] for a district with 130,000 kids. This is not an acceptable academic experience.”

As of March, Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski could point to only $66 million in additional city and state revenue for fiscal 2015. Officials say they need $200 million simply to maintain this year’s skeletal level of services. Superintendent William Hite would like $240 million beyond that for his reform agenda, but financial support of that magnitude seems improbable.

The District is counting on but hasn’t secured $120 million from an extension of a 1 percent sales tax surcharge authorized by the state but not enacted by the city. Council President Darrell Clarke, with reluctant support from Mayor Nutter, remains adamant that those proceeds be split between schools and city pension obligations.

Clarke and Nutter say they also hope to raise $83 million from a new cigarette tax approved by Council last spring. But that scenario requires action from Harrisburg. So does amending the sales tax authorization to redirect half the proceeds to pensions. Prospects for both are uncertain.

Even if both measures pass, the revenue would fall short of the amount the District asked for from the city.

Advocates, while agreeing with Clarke that the state is not meeting its constitutional responsibility to adequately fund schools, are pleading with Council to pass the sales tax extension without amendments. They say failure to do so gives the legislature ammunition for its claim that city leaders are not doing their share. If Council doesn’t act, the authorization expires in June.

“They’re playing a serious game of chicken,” said Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA.

As for labor savings, the District reached an agreement with the principals’ union, with an 11 percent pay reduction and three-year savings of about $20 million.

Negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, with the goal of getting much larger savings by overhauling and reducing compensation, drag on.

There have been other proposals for raising money for schools but no indication that Council is near action. Council member Maria Quiñones-Sanchez has introduced legislation to give the District a larger share of property tax revenues – 60 percent instead of 55 percent – which would deliver about $50 million.

She and Council member Curtis Jones predicted that Council would come through, but probably not until the last minute, after the political chess game has played out.

“We can’t leave Council on June 30 saying all the votes depend on the state,” Quiñones-Sanchez said.

Meanwhile, planning is difficult, school budgets are in flux, and families caught in the uncertainty may turn to non-District options.

Jones, who co-sponsored Quiñones-Sanchez’s bill, noted that Council has given the District more funds four years in a row. “But I don’t see the same tenacity [from] a governor who has not done enough for education in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.”

Clarke was not available for an interview. But Jane Roh, his communications director, issued a statement that Council’s “primary fiduciary duty is to the City of Philadelphia” and that the mayor and Council are seeking “to more equitably split” the sales tax revenue.

Advocates like Cooper and Gobreski counter that the schools crisis is immediate, while the pension problem is long-term. They argue for directing the sales tax proceeds to the schools, while continuing to advocate for a cigarette tax authorization to fund city pensions.

The larger goal of advocates is for a predictable, student-based education funding formula, which Pennsylvania currently lacks. Districts including Philadelphia saw their state and federal dollars diminish after 2008, with the end of federal stimulus funds.

Gov. Corbett has proposed $240 million in additional education aid through “Ready to Learn” block grants, which would yield $29 million for Philadelphia. But there is no increase in basic education, the main source of state money for school districts.

Stanski said that changes in other budget lines would net an additional $23 million for the District.

In addition, the District expects $14 million more in city taxes.

But $200 million in additional revenue is needed to maintain the status quo because about $120 million of its 2013-14 funding is non-recurring. And costs in areas like utilities, charter reimbursement, and benefits will rise by $80 million, Stanski said.

In Harrisburg, there is little appetite to send more funds to city schools, said Ron Cowell, a former Democratic legislator who now runs a statewide policy group.

He noted that per pupil, Philadelphia spends less than Pittsburgh and many other big cities.

“What it spends is relatively modest,” he said. “The presumption that it is a hole people keep dumping money into is not accurate. But a lot of people in Harrisburg don’t understand that fact.”

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