Mayor, Council respond to dire warning from Phila. schools superintendent

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - August 8, 2013

The $2.4 billion budget eliminates many art, music and sports programs, and includes more than 3,000 staff layoffs.

Mayor Michael Nutter and Superintendent William Hite urged city council Thursday to extend a 1 percent city sales tax to raise $50 million so they can rehire some workers. They said city schools will otherwise be unsafe.

"Fifty million will certainly help open the doors on time and safely, but what's on the other side of that door is still inadequate," Nutter said.

But negotiations have bogged down over whether the school district would get some or all of that revenue. Council President Darrell Clarke wants some of it put toward unfunded city pensions. The council has not yet passed the tax extension.

Clarke, though, proposed a new plan Thursday to give the school district $50 million in cash in exchange for surplus real estate, including closed neighborhood schools. The assessed value of those buildings is more than $200 million, according to Clarke, who said he was "extremely confident" they could be sold for redevelopment.

The city's 218 schools are set to open Sept. 9.

"Time is running out," Hite said at an earlier news conference. "How we begin the school year represents what the school year will be like."

Without new funding, the alternatives include opening only some schools, opening none of them or opening on a half-day schedule, he said.

The state's largest district has long struggled with rising pension and health care costs, fluctuations in state aid and a student exodus to charter schools. The current deficit is estimated at $304 million. And the school district's annual debt service alone is $280 million a year, Hite said.

Officials have asked the city and state for $180 million and for unions to agree to about $130 million in concessions. Nutter urged the labor unions to do their part to solve the budget problems.

Four high school principals joined Hite and said they would have to manage schools with thousands of teenagers and perhaps 100 teachers, but no ancillary staff, from guidance counselors to assistant principals to lunch room aides. Linda Carroll, the principal of Northeast Philadelphia High School, said her 700 seniors were especially vulnerable.

"They've worked very hard to get to this point. Some of them are applying to colleges. There's not a counselor there," Carroll said.

Hite inherited the district's financial woes, arriving in Philadelphia last summer from Maryland.

"While we make priorities around a lot of other things, it seems like we're always a final thought, or a last thought," Hite said Thursday. "I think we have to flip that conversation."

Parent activist Helen Gym has called the commission's budget vote "an immoral act against our children and our city."

Meantime, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan issued the following statement Thursday evening:

"For months, we have publicly voiced our concerns about the school district's ability to open schools on time in the wake of budget cuts, school closings and the layoff of the employees who provide vital services to students and parents. The district is now finally acknowledging the severity and scope of this reality.

"We hope our elected leaders in the City of Philadelphia and Harrisburg are equally troubled by this situation, and will quickly live up to their obligation to adequately and sustainably fund our public schools.

"Though we have been forecasting this situation, it is nonetheless distressing. Equally disturbing is the notion that school employees should bear the brunt of repairing a budget deficit they did not create, or that they haven't made sacrifices for Philadelphia's schoolchildren. For years, our city's educators have made personal and financial sacrifices so that their students could have the tools, supports and materials the school district couldn't provide.

"The district's current contract proposals will not create better schools; rather, they will cause a mass exodus of high quality educators and a deterioration of teaching and learning conditions in our schools for years to come."

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