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SRC set to adopt budget considerably smaller than what it sought

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

Updated | 6 p.m.

The School Reform Commission will vote Thursday on a 2015-16 budget of $2.8 billion, while giving Superintendent William Hite authorization to spend $2.67 billion of that pending the state’s completion of its own highly contentious budget.

The District is hoping for an additional $159 million from the state, $141 million of which could allow the District to restore some cuts and embark on a reform plan. It counts on at least an $18 million boost in state funding.

Gov. Wolf and the Republican legislature are still locked in battle over a budget for next year and are unlikely to meet tonight’s deadline for passage. Wolf had sought new taxes, including on shale drilling, to fund a $400 million increase in education spending, about $159 million of which would come to Philadelphia.

With the deadline looming at midnight June 30, budgets moving through the House and Senate — which Wolf has threatened to veto — include none of the taxes and only a fraction of the increase in education spending that Wolf had sought — about $100 million, of which about $18 million would come to Philadelphia.

(Legislative Democrats say that the Republican budget amounts to just an $8 million increase for the entire state when school district payments for pensions and other factors are figured in.)

Update: "I’m deeply troubled by the situation the Philadelphia schools find themselves in tonight," said SRC Chair Marjorie Neff, after listening to a presentation from Hite and Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski regarding the budget and the choices that have been made.

Her fear that "inadequate budgets would become the new normal" is close to being realized unless the state adopts a budget sending more money to education in general and Philadelphia in particular, she said.

The budget that is up for a vote by the SRC falls $198 million short of how much the District had requested from the city and state. In the budget, about $41 million of that difference is attributed to the city and $157 million to the state.

Overall, the budget is $85 million more than last year, which is what officials have repeatedly said it would cost simply to maintain current programs. Or, to put it another way, the budget reflects what is necessary to close an anticipated deficit for next year and avoid layoffs and further cuts.

The budget assumes $18 million more from the state, even though its budget isn’t compete, for its operating budget for a total of $1.4 billion. And it counts on $67 million more from the city, which did pass a budget, for a total of $1.25 billion. The District had sought more than $100 million from the city, but Council trimmed that to around $70 million with the possibility of $30 million from the sale of tax liens.

The District told school principals in March and April to make staffing and other decisions based on the status quo. If the state comes through with more money, schools will be able to add staff and other resources. Principals were asked to prepare two spending plans, one that includes a wish list.

"We’ll be working with the governor’s office and the legislature to get the whole $159 million and move ahead," said Stanski, who will be working for the District only one more day.

He added that the District is "excited" about the formula approved by the legislature’s Basic Education Funding Commission, which would add predictability to what districts can expect from the state every year. It would give extra weights for students who are English language learners and those who live below the poverty line, as well as for districts with highly concentrated poverty and a large charter school presence.

Stanski said, however, that the District is "in favor of the Wolf plan to restore revenue first and apply the formula in fiscal 2017." Otherwise, the formula, recommended to apply only to new education money and not to the entire amount, will be applied on a smaller base for Phialdelphia and other impoverished districts.

Despite the budget theatrics in Harrisburg, "we are cautiously optimistic," said Stanski. "But we are doing what we did in the last three years: only spending what we know we are going to have."

The meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m. can be seen live online or on Comcast channel 52.

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