Philly School Reform Commission approves 'doomsday' budget

PHILADELPHIA - May 30, 2013

The School Reform Commission approved a $2.4 billion spending plan that includes deep cuts in art, music, athletics and other programs. The vote means layoff notices could begin going out next month to assistant principals, guidance counselors, librarians and other employees.

"This is not the budget that anyone wants," Superintendent William Hite Jr. said. "It falls catastrophically short of meeting the students' needs."

Parents, teachers, students and community members begged the panel to reconsider, but commission members said they had little choice given the district's $304 million deficit.

Officials promised to work to secure additional funding from the city and state to help reduce the impact of the cuts.

"We should not think that today is the end of anything," said commission chairman Pedro Ramos.

With hundreds of protesters gathered outside district headquarters to rail against what they called a "doomsday" budget, the commission took public comment from dozens of students, teachers and parents who denounced the planned cuts. They said programs like art, music and athletics motivate kids stay in school, while guidance counselors help students navigate the tricky college application process. Some students played their instruments or read poetry.

"Any money that you put into this district is really the most efficient money that you are going to put anywhere in this whole city and in this whole state," said Daphne Weinstein, a student at Central High School. "We are already doing a lot with less, and teachers are already going above and beyond what they are asked."

The state's largest district, which serves about 204,000 traditional and charter school students, has not been able to keep pace with rising costs despite closing more than 30 schools and cutting hundreds of central office workers. The district is struggling with pension and health care contributions, payments for increasing charter enrollment, and fluctuations in state aid.

The district was required to pass a budget by Friday. Officials say some of the cuts can be rescinded if they receive extra funding this summer; they've asked the city and state to kick in $180 million and for unions to agree to about $130 million in concessions.

Mayor Michael Nutter has proposed generating about $95 million for the district through higher taxes on alcoholic drinks, cigarettes and businesses. But the plan requires City Council approval and enabling legislation from the state, and a coalition comprising bar and restaurant owners, plus alcohol suppliers, brewers and distributors, oppose the hikes.

Lawmakers in Harrisburg, meanwhile, are still haggling over the state budget, so it's unclear how much education aid Philadelphia will get. And teachers union president Jerry Jordan has said that givebacks are unlikely, noting his members already pay hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets for school supplies.

Despite the uncertain revenue picture, Hite struck an optimistic note ahead of Thursday's meeting, telling reporters he's hopeful the budget will be revisited before the cuts kick in.

"We fully anticipate having the opportunity to amend the budget when we have a better idea of the revenues coming from the city, the state and any other sources in the near future," Hite said.

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