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Schools set two budgets for two futures

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

Philadelphia schools can bear no more cuts, said Superintendent William Hite earlier this week.

It’s positive news, then, that the School District of Philadelphia projects to end the year with a small surplus and expects to gain sorely needed resources next year, should city and state proposals hold up, according to budget documents.

"Given that schools are already operating at bare-bones levels, additional cuts would strip desperately needed supports from students, staff, and families," reads the District document.

But until state and city budgets are adopted, the District must prepare itself for more pain. For that reason, school budgets released Wednesday reflect two different futures: the status quo and the assumed.

The assumed is, in some ways, a best-case scenario that accounts for a combined $265 million increase proposed by Gov. Wolf and Mayor Nutter. Three-quarters of that new, recurring money would go directly toward improving its 217 schools, the District has said, with the rest going to fill a projected $84 million shortfall next year.

Principals could restore a lost nurse, counselor, teacher, secretary, supportive services assistant, or bring back several noontime aides. With that money, schools would not only find some much-needed relief, but have some money for arts or music enrichment, school climate programs, classroom technology, or teaching supplies, according to the District.

“Our current resources do not provide a high-quality education to many of our students, especially those in the most challenging circumstances,” said Hite in a statement.

According to District projections, most schools stand to receive between $250,000 and $500,000 in additional city and state funding. About one-third of schools would receive more than $500,000.

Robert McGrogan, head of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, said that although the increase in funding "barely gets schools to what they need," principals are "banking on the [additional] funds."

"They can’t even muster the thought of going through another austere year like we’ve had," he said.

The District has also changed the way it will dole out federal aid — about $78 million in Title I assistance.

A shift in the method for calculating poverty rates will affect the amount of money allocated to Title I schools, effectively all Philadelphia public schools. Under the new system, about 60 percent of schools will gain Title I aid and 40 percent will lose it, according to District figures. But those gains and losses are not all the result of the new system. Enrollment fluctuations also play a role.

Schools that rate in the lowest two tiers of the state’s school rating system, the School Performance Profile, will also receive extra funding. Some of that money will depend on the level of the school’s progress.

Money will also be reserved for schools to boost parental involvement and professional development.

School communities have already been given a glimpse of what additional resources could do to help schools. In the lead-up to approving a final budget, the District has been holding a series of school-budget meetings in neighborhoods around the city.

School officials have not only been drawing a picture of a rosier, better-funded future, but also pressing parents to see that that future turns on the will of City Hall and Harrisburg.

“Gov. Wolf and Mayor Nutter have responded emphatically in support of our underserved children. I hope parents, educators and stakeholders across the city and region will join us in advocating for urgent resources to support our students and schools,” said Hite.

Wolf has proposed tax increases, lower local property taxes, and a tax on natural gas drilling. His budget is likely to face stiff opposition from a Republican-controlled state legislature.

The mayor’s plan involves raising city property taxes. The cost to the average homeowner, he said, would amount to the price of one cheesesteak per month.

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