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Key questions and answers on the budget crisis

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

Notebook editors Paul Socolar and Dale Mezzacappa prepared a question-and-answer sheet, updating the budget crisis for distribution at E! Day, the District’s annual back-to-school event to be held Friday at School of the Future. This is the event at which the District holds workshops and gives out information to families, as well as free book bags.

Following is the Q&A, and here is a link to the actual flyer. Feel free to copy and distribute.

What’s this about the schools not opening on time this fall?

The School District relies primarily on revenue from the city and the state to operate. Right now it does not have enough money to meet its expenses. This is because over the last several years, it has lost a lot of state aid while some of its costs continue to rise – and city and state leaders disagree over who is responsible to provide the necessary funds.

Is it just a threat or could it actually happen?

It could actually happen. Superintendent William Hite says that if he has to cut more personnel, he doesn’t think it will be safe to open schools. He says he needs $81 million in additional revenue just to reach the reduced level of services that the schools had this year, when thousands of jobs were cut – assistant principals, counselors, nurses, teachers, school police, and support staff. “I am at a loss to explain how or why our students are caught in a political tug of war,” Hite said this week. “I can say unequivocally, however, that our students deserve more.”

The governor said he was giving a cash advance to the School District so schools can open. Doesn’t that solve the problem?

No. Gov. Corbett said he will advance $265 million of the funds it already owes the District. It was not a promise of new money that would help close the $81 million gap. Advances like this have been done before; they help the District avoid short-term borrowing that costs money. The District was already counting on this happening.

There were tons of layoffs last year. Who can they possibly lay off now?

If Hite and the School Reform Commission are forced to close the budget gap with layoffs, they can eliminate some positions in District headquarters, but there simply aren’t that many of them left. The central office staff has already been cut in half. Most of the District’s employees work in the schools, so that’s where most further layoffs would have to come. There are more teachers than anyone else, so a good number would have to be teachers, which is why the superintendent is talking about class sizes going up – and possibly reaching 41 in high schools.

Would passing a cigarette tax solve the problem?

If the state legislature agrees to a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes in Philadelphia, it would help close the gap. Revenue from the tax would be new money. Estimates are that it will bring in between $45 million and $60 million this year, and this money would cut into that $81 million shortfall. But it won’t completely close the gap. And legislators went on their summer recess without approving the tax, and aren’t due back until September.

Is there any movement to resolve this crisis?

So far, the Republican leadership in the state legislature is ignoring pleas from Philadelphia – and from Gov. Corbett – to interrupt its summer recess and return to Harrisburg to authorize the cigarette tax that the City Council has already passed. These leaders, as well as Gov. Corbett’s budget secretary, have told the District to count on the cigarette tax money. Superintendent Hite, however, wants a guarantee and has not yet decided what to do. Meanwhile, many advocacy groups have been calling for the state to adopt a fair formula for adequately funding schools. But legislators have barely started their discussions about what such a formula might look like.

When will we know what will happen?

We will have a good idea of what will happen by Friday, Aug. 15. Superintendent Hite says that this date is the latest he can go in setting staffing levels for all the schools. If he must lay off more people, he has to do it by then.

If District schools didn’t open on time, would charter schools still be able to open?

Most likely. Under state law, charter schools get paid monthly by the District an amount per pupil based on the District’s prior year spending for schools. So if the District’s per pupil spending goes down as it did in 2013-14, charter schools’ funding levels are impacted the following year. However, the District is required to pay the charters all that they are owed. This means that the District cannot try to balance its budget by withholding or reducing what it sends to charters.

Can I do anything to get involved?

You can write or call your elected officials. Phone numbers are in the Notebook’s print edition and on our website.

You can also keep current with what advocacy groups like Education Voters PA, Parents United for Public Education, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, or Youth United for Change are doing by reading the Notebook or contacting those organizations directly.

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