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Mayor, Council, PFT, District, charters join in asking state for new funds

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

Putting aside their usual bickering over what the School District deserves and how it spends its money, the city’s key education players sent a joint letter to the Philadelphia legislative delegation Thursday "in unified support of restoring critically needed state funds" that will benefit students.

The letter urges the legislature to increase statewide basic education funding by $410 million next year and allocate it in a way that would restore cuts made to districts since 2011. That would result in $159 million in additional funds to Philadelphia for this fiscal year.

It calls upon the legislature to then adopt the education aid distribution formula advocated by the legislature’s Basic Education Funding Commission.

The letter is signed by Mayor Nutter, Council President Darrell Clarke, School Reform Commission chair Marjorie Neff, Superintendent William Hite, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, and Amy Ruck Kagan, executive director of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence.

"Our students have gone through several painful years of a funding crisis caused by a number of factors, but primarily by cuts in state funding and the end of federal stimulus funds," the letter says. "Schools have faced unavoidable cuts, deteriorating services to a level that no one thinks is acceptable."

It emphasizes that the cuts also affect charter school students, not just those in District schools — 203,000 students in all.

The letter is a rare demonstration of unity. Council and Nutter have been at odds over the District’s needs; Council under Clarke’s leadership rejected the mayor’s proposal to increase property taxes enough to raise $100 million for the schools, instead offering $70 million in increased funds and imposing conditions on some of that.

The teachers’ union and the District, perennially at war, have been locked in fruitless negotiations for two years, and the SRC tried in October to nullify the PFT contract and impose benefit changes.

And the charter community has been at odds with the District over efforts to restrain charter growth.

As part of the plea, the letter recounts austerity measures already taken — closing 32 schools, eliminating 3,000 positions, reducing school programs, slashing central administration, reducing salaries and benefits for many employees, including principals and blue-collar workers.

While the PFT, the largest union, has not agreed to a contract, the letter notes that teachers have not received any increases for three years that they were entitled to based on accruing more years of service and additional degrees earned. Those savings amount to about $45 million, the letter says.

It also recounts how the mayor and Council "took historic steps to add funding," amounting to more than $400 million in recurring funding since fiscal 2011.

The money approved by Council will be needed, plus $18 million of additional state aid, to plug a budget hole and keep services at current levels, The additional $141 million hoped for from the Wolf budget "would enable schools — for the first time in years — to focus on making investments that will improve educational opportunities for Philadelphia’s [students]."

"Without this additional state funding, our schools will have another bleak year," the letter says.

The letter notes that the District "faces a number of other fundamental issues" before attaining fiscal stability, including rising charter and pension costs and the unresolved PFT contract. But, it concludes, "each of us must participate in reaching structural solutions and ensuring that we are all accountable for the success of Philadelphia’s children."

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