Philadelphia schools can't commit to staff rehires yet

PHILADELPHIA - July 1, 2013

Lawmakers in Harrisburg crafted a series of proposals over the weekend that would generate about $141 million for the broke district. But not all the measures have legislative approval yet, and the school system would still need an additional $163 million to cover its deficit.

"There remains a good deal of activity in Harrisburg before we're comfortable discussing the actual results," Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, said in an email.

Superintendent William Hite and the state-run School Reform Commission, which oversees the district, expressed support for the bailout. The plan provides an extra $16 million in education aid and redirects a $45 million windfall in public welfare funds to the city's schools; the remaining $80 million would come from borrowing and more aggressive tax collection.

The package would also allow the city to extend a temporary increase in its sales tax and give that money - about $120 million per year - to the schools. But City Council President Darrell Clarke said he'd like that revenue to shore up the city's severely underfunded pension system.

"If we don't deal with our pension problem very shortly, we could potentially be where the school district is currently," Clarke said Monday.

Philadelphia, the state's largest district, serves about 204,000 traditional and charter school students. It has struggled to keep pace with rising costs, despite closing more than 30 schools and cutting hundreds of central office workers.

And there has not been much enthusiasm in the Republican-controlled state Legislature to help a chronically troubled district in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

So, facing a $304 million gap for the coming school year, officials laid off 20 percent of the district's staff - from assistant principals to secretaries. They also cut art, music and sports programs.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten called the situation "a crisis." She asked U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to pressure Pennsylvania's governor and lawmakers for more funding.

"The public schools of Philadelphia are being starved to the point where they can no longer function for the city's children," Weingarten wrote to Duncan in a letter released Monday. "This will have a permanent, crippling impact on a generation of children."

A spokeswoman for Duncan did not immediately return a request for comment. The letter was co-signed by New York University education professor Diane Ravitch.

District officials have said they could restore some staff and programs if they got $60 million from the city, $120 million from the state, and more than $130 million in labor givebacks, mostly from the teachers' union.

City Council passed a $2-per-pack cigarette tax that would generate $90 million annually for the schools, but it requires enabling legislation from Harrisburg - which might not be forthcoming.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan has said his members already spend hundreds of dollars a year out of pocket for school supplies. And proposed concessions on extending the work day make no sense without additional resources, he said.

"Until we can ensure that art, music, extracurricular and other programs are brought back to our schools, additional hours would make for a longer school day, but not a better one," he said in a statement Sunday.

Some local activists in Philadelphia expressed optimism that the bailout will allow the district to rehire staff. They marched to school headquarters Monday and ended their two-week, rotating "Fast for Safe Schools" to protest the layoffs of 1,200 lunchtime aides.

"In the beginning, when we started this, they were saying there wasn't any money," said parent Earlene Bly, who drank only water for eight days to draw attention to the district's plight. "They didn't come up with all of it, but they came up with some of it."

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