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Council talks budgets, penmanship with District

Photo: Emma Lee | WHYY

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

It’s budget season, and the School District of Philadelphia is making the rounds to seek money for the coming school year.

District officials appeared before City Council on Tuesday to ask for recurring funds, to the tune of about $100 million a year, to help them achieve long-term strategic plans. In response, City Council asked for more information about how the District had spent past budget contributions, as well as grilling the educators about penmanship.

With no additional funding from either the city or state, the District faces an $85 million budget deficit for the next school year. In order to make good on the promises in Action Plan 3.0, the District’s strategic lodestar, it’s requesting $300 million in combined additional, annual funding from Philadelphia and the state.

As several pointed out, Philadelphia has authorized a few last-minute funding infusions to make up for shortfalls in state funds.

"Every year, the city steps up to the plate," said Council President Darrell Clarke. "The state doesn’t. That’s not your fault," he said, referring to District officials.

But, he said, under Gov. Wolf’s watch, it seems more likely the District would get additional funds from the state.

Wolf’s proposed budget would give the District $159 million in additional, recurring funds. Mayor Nutter’s proposed property tax increase would throw in $105 million more. Wolf’s plan must pass muster with the state legislature and its Republican majority. And the idea of a property tax increase has not received much support from Clarke or the rest of City Council.

Members of the School Reform Commission acknowledged the city’s contributions, totalling $327 million, to the School District over the last three years. But, they said, because of the scale of the District’s need and its mandated costs, that funding is not enough to cover costs, much less to put teachers back in classrooms.

"Over that time frame, we have seen our fixed costs go up exponentially," said Matt Stanski, the District’s chief financial officer. Philadelphia’s contributions have gone toward paying for those fixed costs — such as pensions, debt service and charter reimbursement — while the District has had to cut back on staff, teaching areas and extracurriculars.

"We cannot and should not ask our schools to give up anything more," said School Reform Commission Chair Marjorie Neff. "To put it simply, there is nothing left to cut."

Clarke shared with City Council a letter sent to the District dated May 20, requesting a full accounting of how it had spent the $327 million. The official response, according to Clarke, was "basically nothing."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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