News Column

Decision pending on whether Phila. schools will open on time

August 15, 2014

By Kristen A. Graham, The Philadelphia Inquirer



Aug. 15--Will Philadelphia schools open on Sept. 8, as scheduled? Can the nearly broke system afford to run classes all year? Will officials lay off more than 1,300 employees? Will they pack classes with 40 students?

After a summer of suspense, the answers to those questions are expected Friday. A special School Reform Commission meeting had been called for Friday morning but was scrapped late Thursday in favor of a news conference with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

What Hite's call will be is anyone's guess. But some things are clear:

The district has an $81 million budget gap -- that is, it needs $81 million to get to last school year's funding levels, which did not provide for adequate supplies and full-time counselors and nurses in every school.

It was counting on tens of millions from a $2-a-pack cigarette tax that is stalled in a legislature generally not warm to Philadelphia causes that now won't return until Sept. 15. And even when lawmakers return to Harrisburg, the tax's swift passage is not a lock.

Gov. Corbett will advance the district $265 million, but the district had already asked for and budgeted that money, and it does not touch the deficit.

Hite and SRC Chairman Bill Green have sworn they will not spend money the district does not have, and said they cannot make further cuts without severely affecting the already grim situation inside city classrooms.

Philadelphia is the only city in the state where the people who run the school district -- in this case, the SRC -- lack the power to raise revenue, and deep cuts in the level of state funding for the district has hurt it badly.

The threat of not opening schools on time is a major bargaining chip for Hite, who badly needs one. Facing an uphill reelection battle, Corbett, viewed as weak on education, does not need having the start of school delayed for 131,000 students.

The district's leaders have also said that laying off so many employees on top of the 5,000 staffers cut over the last several years would make schools unsafe.

A late school opening would mean that many of the district's 16,000 employees would be without a paycheck for a time. It would create child-care headaches for parents.

Hite could delay the start of school, or shed workers and open on time, or start as scheduled. That, however, would involve banking on Harrisburg officials' promises that the cigarette tax is a priority or Hite saying he will end the school year early if the revenues don't come through.

The superintendent has publicly mentioned an early end to the school year as a possibility, though that raises questions about state aid, since districts need 180 days of instruction to receive state funds.

What would Ebony Briscoe, the mother of three children in district schools, do were she in Hite's shoes?

She paused.

"That's hard," said Briscoe, who appeared with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf and State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) at a news conference decrying the state of district funding Thursday. "I don't know what I would do, honestly."

She does know that her children -- a third grader and a sixth grader at Cassidy Elementary and an eighth grader at Beeber Middle, both in West Philadelphia -- are itching to get back to class.

"They keep asking me, 'When is school starting?' " Briscoe said. "I don't know what to tell them."

Wolf and Hughes hit Corbett and the legislature hard, both for their failure to make the cigarette tax happen and for the overall school-funding situation in Philadelphia and the rest of the state.

"What's happening here is unacceptable," said Wolf, a York County businessman. "We are holding our children hostage."

Outside West Philadelphia High, where parents and students streamed out of a summer reading program, Wolf called for funding cuts to be reversed, in part by a tax on Marcellus Shale.

"We can't keep taking money out of our schools and hope we get to a good place," he said.

Hughes shook his head. He said he wasn't sure what Hite would decide.

"But the fact that we're having this conversation at all is the crime here," he said.

Fernando Gallard, district spokesman, said Thursday night that the superintendent had not arrived at a final decision.

"We are working hard to do what's best for the students and their families," Gallard said. "Even at this late hour, we are still considering all options."

kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

___

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)


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