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Photo: Kevin McCorry | NewsWorks

Kevin McCorry / NewsWorks

Budget uncertainty plagues principals, planning

School leaders must plan for austerity and provide a wish list for what more dollars could buy.

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

Carver High School of Engineering & Science is one of the most successful schools in the city, educating mostly low-income students of color in sought-after technology fields and sending them to college.

Next year, principal Ted Domers doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to offer AP computer science.

“I can fill the class; I just don’t know if I’ll have textbooks,” he explained.

He’d like to provide an afterschool SAT prep class, “but I don’t know if I’ll have the money to pay the teachers.”

He has one counselor for 750 students. He has one secretary.

Still, in cash-strapped Philadelphia, Domers is one of the luckier principals. Carver, a special admission school, can control its enrollment, making it easier to plan a schedule and roster classes. Neighborhood schools, on the other hand, often can’t predict with any precision how many students will turn up in September, and some lack basics like science books.

And even on a shoestring, Carver still manages 26 extracurricular offerings, including an award-winning robotics team.

Although other city schools may have it worse, all of them are plagued by the constant instability and uncertainty about what funds will be available year to year. The perennial budget crises and annual battles for money prevent good planning, as well as early and competitive hiring of top educators.

This year, Superintendent William Hite and the School Reform Commission are seeking $264 million in additional funds from the city and state; $84 million of that money will be needed just to keep what schools have now.

And at this point, none of that funding is a sure thing.

Hite was thrilled in February when Gov. Wolf and Mayor Nutter both proposed significantly more money for the District, as he had asked. But City Council and all the mayoral candidates pooh-poohed the mayor’s proposal to raise property taxes, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly roundly criticized Wolf’s plan, which relies on reshaping the state’s tax structure.

In an effort to convince lawmakers in City Hall and Harrisburg to make the investment and not just plug the budget hole, Hite has laid out a blueprint for what the District would do with the additional $180 million. He has asked principals like Domers to prepare two budgets: one status quo, and one that includes a wish list if the money comes through.

Domers told the SRC in April that he would pay for another half-time counselor and three more teachers, and invest more than $200,000 in additional technology and materials, including Chromebooks, smartboards, and Advanced Placement course materials for his students.

“We’re trying to get the message out that the investment of $264 million is an investment that is worthwhile,” said District Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski.

No early action

The SRC is required to adopt a budget by the end of May. To expedite matters, it warned the officeholders of its budget request earlier than usual. But City Council scheduled this year’s budget hearing later than usual – for May 26.

The city has until June 30 to pass legislation laying out its tax levy for the next fiscal year.

Key budget dates

May 26: City Council holds its hearing on the School District budget at City Hall.

May 28: School Reform Commission vote was scheduled on a 2015-16 School District budget, but this has been postponed to June 30. (The SRC is ignoring the fact that the legal deadline for budget adoption is May 31.)

June 30: Deadline for City Council and the mayor to adopt a budget and approve tax resolutions for fiscal year 2016, authorizing funds for schools.

June 30: Deadline for the governor and General Assembly to enact a fiscal year 2016 state budget.

Both the city and the state have missed June 30 deadlines in the past, further complicating planning for the School District.

The state must also adopt its tax and spending bills by June 30, but that deadline has often been missed in the past.

This kind of timing makes it hard for districts and schools to plan.

“Having unknown revenue – it’s difficult,” said Stanski.

“Say we don’t know the state number until August. Say we even get the full amount then. It is still problematic. How do you staff up in August?”

The prime hiring season for next school year, he said, is the spring.

Budgeting for the District has been this way since long before Stanski arrived with Hite from Prince George’s County, Md., in 2012. (He will be leaving the District for a job in Maryland this summer.)

“One thing that would be nice is if we got a funding formula that makes things a little more predictable,” Stanski said.

With a formula, school districts can calculate what they are entitled to from year to year. Philadelphia has been asking the city and state for more than a decade to provide recurring revenue that would allow the District to keep up with its expenses. Instead, the District has been forced to close budget gaps with a series of one-time gimmicks or revenue-raisers that self-destruct after a few years, like the $2-a-pack cigarette tax enacted in 2014 that is due to expire in 2019.

This results in the District repeatedly begging for money, which visibly irks lawmakers in City Hall and Harrisburg, who prefer to believe that their actions the previous year solved everything.

That is why this year, the District has tried to be more detailed about what additional funds would be spent on and have been highlighting schools such as Carver and Arthur Elementary in the Graduate Hospital area.

What’s no longer standard

Arthur, under principal Kim Newman, is working hard with neighborhood groups to become a school of choice for the socioeconomically diverse residents in its catchment area. It has a stable staff and a couple of dozen extracurricular activities, ranging from a robotics team to ballroom dancing.

But it doesn’t have a staff member solely dedicated to managing school climate and fully implementing a discipline system based on positive behavior supports. When Arthur absorbed students from a nearby school that closed, its truancy rate went up.

“Many families had issues with travel,” Newman said.

The school doesn’t have a full-time librarian or nurse. It has lots of partnerships, but teachers often volunteer their time to keep some afterschool programs going.

“If I had unlimited money, I’d bring in more arts and music … and more options for foreign languages,” Newman said. “I’d definitely look at a full-time library and full-time nurse … [things that] if you go outside Philadelphia are considered standard.”

The SRC held a budget hearing at District headquarters in April, and Stanski traveled around the city for community meetings where people could ask budget questions. But most sessions were sparsely attended.

“I think that people are just frustrated,” Stanski said. “But we’re trying to change that frustration and point out that this is an opportunity. We have real proposals on the table, and we need people to come out and advocate for those proposals.”

A call for more dollars

Organizations like Public Citizens for Children & Youth and Education Voters PA have been lobbying Harrisburg for more state spending on education and a funding formula that would be fair to all districts, including the commonwealth’s biggest city.

At the community budget meetings, principals from places like Bartram and Northeast High Schools spoke about what they lacked and what they needed. Most want to invest in more materials, teacher training, tutoring, and afterschool programs.

But many of the requests are for basics. Bartram doesn’t have enough science books. Northeast, which has nearly 3,000 students, would hire seven more teachers and another counselor, and spend more than $1.2 million in additional revenue on Chromebooks for 9th graders, smartboards for all classrooms, and support for more extracurricular activities.

And most schools, like Arthur, want more people, counselors or others, to work on discipline and climate.

Domers, of Carver, is afraid that principals, students, and parents are becoming inured to the situation and will stop advocating.

“This idea of ‘a new normal’ is dangerous,” he said. He fears an attitude that the status quo is OK – that it’s acceptable to have one counselor for 750 students, one secretary for a staff of 50, no common planning time for teachers.

“Teachers should have common planning time,” Domers said. “It shouldn’t be considered a luxury that schools can do without.”

For next year, the District is hoping that Wolf’s and Nutter’s budget proposals are approved. Many expect the state budget negotiations to drag out far into the summer.

The state legislature’s Basic Education Funding Commission is scheduled to come out with a proposed formula in June. But nobody expects an agreement on the formula to be enacted in time for the next school year.

The courts have consistently declined to get involved. In March, Commonwealth Court dismissed a lawsuit brought by several school districts, parents, and advocacy groups arguing that the current method for distributing state school dollars is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs, represented by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court. But they don’t expect a final ruling until well into 2016.

Carver’s Domers is proud of what his school has accomplished. Still, he said, the current situation is not fair to his students, many of whom would benefit from more supports.

Many of them need regular check-ins, but don’t get them. The one counselor is so overloaded that she lacks the time to give students more in-depth help with course planning and course selection. There is no chance to be proactive and prevent issues, he said.

“The early supports aren’t in place, so it turns into a very reactive system,” he said. “”We can respond when a kid melts down because we can’t put supports in place early enough.”

If “we had what our kids deserve,” Domers said, “we could continue to soar.”