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District’s new financial plan clarifies what the needs are

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

In adopting a five-year financial plan in December, the School Reform Commission and the District are hoping to get extra help from their state and city government funders by making their needs known early, before the usual budget process.

And they will need lots of extra help in closing a growing budget gap.

A January Commonwealth Court ruling in favor of the teachers’ union blocked unilateral cuts the District made to health benefits and wiped out $50 million in savings that District officials had been banking on. Any health care savings will now likely have to come through collective bargaining.

The version of the financial plan that the SRC adopted was bluntly dubbed by officials the “inadequate status quo” approach. It projected that without the contract savings, unless new city or state revenue is granted, the District will face an $80 million shortfall in 2015-16.

That gap still assumes another bare-bones year with no new investments in schools, nor any restoration of the brutal staffing cuts of recent years. Superintendent William Hite called the budget situation “a grim reality,” acknowledging the toll of cutbacks on students, families, and staff.

District officials say this budget gap must be filled with new revenues from somewhere.

“We can’t continue to cut our way to solvency,” said Matthew Stanski, the District’s chief financial officer.

The District’s five-year plan assumes only modest growth in charter enrollment over that period – 5,500 more students. If charters expand more rapidly (see story, p. 6), the District’s deficit also grows.

There’s little good news for teachers in the adopted plan, which assumes their salaries remain frozen over five years.

District staff did present the SRC with an alternative, “transformative” model. With an additional $309 million, two-thirds requested from the state and one-third from the city, the District could make substantial new investments next year in areas like expanded pre-K, early literacy coaches, increased counseling, improved professional development, and new efforts to turn around low-performing schools.

With Pennsylvania facing a massive deficit, this year’s state budget will be a contentious one. Newly elected Gov. Wolf will have to hash that out with the legislature between February and June.

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