Philadelphia's schools chief says the district may not be able to open its schools on time this September without tens of millions in additional funding to reverse draconian cuts and major layoffs enacted earlier this year.
School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite said Thursday that he's "deeply frustrated" over the lack of help from city and state officials to close a $304 million budget deficit with just four weeks to go before school opens.
Philadelphia's 136,000 public school students are set to go back to school on September 9, but Dr. Hite says if the district does not get at least $50 million in additional funding by next Friday, August 16, he might have to push back that date.
Dr. Hite says there are three scenarios that could play out if the district doesn't get the cash. One option would keep all 218 schools closed past September 9. Another would only open a portion of the schools and in a third option, the schools would open, but only operate for half days.
"Our students are the most important part of this equation, and it is both saddening and frustrating to be in the position of telling them and their families that I do not know when their education will resume," he said.
The superintendent says the schools cannot operate without the proper amount of staff. He says it's all about safety.
"Fifty million allows us to tell parents that when their child is walking through the hallways, eating lunch or at recess, an adult will be supervising them," Dr. Hite said.
He added that no principal can run a 3,000 student high school or 400 student elementary school without support staff.
The School District of Philadelphia, the nation's eighth-largest public school system which is controlled by a state reform commission, laid off nearly 4,000 employees in June. The layoffs included all assistant principals, secretaries and guidance counselors. Hundreds of teachers and teacher's aides also lost their jobs.
The $304 million funding hole also causes schools to shelve extra-curricular activities and non-core programs like art.
An infusion of $50 million will allow the district to reinstate about 1,000 of those laid off employees. Officials say they would include assistant principals and secretaries.
While the money would allow the schools to open on time and for full days, it's still not enough, Dr. Hite says.
"Fifty million will only allow us to open the doors, but not give our students the quality education they deserve," he said.
THE PROPOSED FUNDING
A total of about $151 million has been promised to the district through various local and state plans, but that's just about half of the total deficit.
Following Dr. Hite's public ultimatum Thursday, Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke presented a plan to provide funding using real estate.
Under the plan, Clarke says the city would purchase all of the district's real estate liens and surplus properties -- valued at nearly $200 million -- and then sell or convert them for reuse.
City Council would then provide the district with a $50 million advance to ensure schools could open.
"Thereby fixing a number of problems, providing revenue immediately to the schools and fixing up currently vacant and derelict buildings in these neighborhoods," Clarke said.
Clarke said council members have drafted a bill that they plan to present for vote. Should it pass, Clarke says, the city will be providing upwards of $90 million to the district. He says the city was only asked to provide $60 million in funding.
The bill also includes taking $140 million raised through extending the 1-percent sales tax hike and splitting that revenue between schools and the city's underfunded pension plan.
Council leaders have previously promised the city would provide funding to knock down part of the deficit, but that plan never materialized.
In addition to the city's money, another $45 million in forgiven federal debts could come to the district via the state, but Gov. Corbett says Philadelphia won't get the cash unless the district enacts reforms -- including $133 million in teacher union concessions.
The teachers, who are currently in contract negotiations, have said they can't give back any more.
"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," Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said in a statement following Dr. Hite's address.
As for the state, while they control the one-time federal funding, officials have only pledged an additional $16 million in Commonwealth funding to the school system. All of the other funding in Gov. Corbett's previously proposed $140 million funding package relies on other entities, like the city, to collect the cash.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter urged City Council to come up with the money for the district. He says he would not allow schools to open without having them properly staffed.
“I stand shoulder to shoulder with Dr. Hite that we, and certainly I, will not allow schools to open with currently only the staff that he can afford,” he said.
Addressing calls for the city to take money out of the its General Fund, which is essentially the city government's bank account, Mayor Nutter said it's not fiscally responsible.
“Tapping into the city’s fund balance puts our own city finances in serious jeopardy. We simply cannot afford to go on that path," he said.
Should the schools not open on time, questions remain as to how they would make up the days lost. The Commonwealth's Public School Code states all schools must complete 180 days of instruction by June 30 of each year, according to Pa. Department. of Education Press Secretary Tim Eller.
Asked for comment on Dr. Hite's scenarios, the Pa. Department of Education has yet to respond.