Split SRC approves plan to spend $2.9 billion in 2017-18

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By a vote of 3 to 1, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission on Thursday approved the broad outlines of a $2.9 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year that all the members agreed was not enough to cover the education that the district’s students need and deserve.

Commission member Bill Green, who cast the dissenting vote, had asked his fellow commissioners to join him in voting no for what he called “a fake budget.”

Green, a former City Council member, said voting against the so-called “lump-sum budget” was the only way to put pressure on the city and state to provide the additional money that the district needs

“You never get more than what you ask for,” he said.

SRC chair Joyce Wilkerson suggested a motion directing the district to spend time developing an alternative budget that would reflect that need.  That measure was approved unanimously.

The $2.9 billion spending plan, which represents a  6.7 percent increase over the current year’s $2.7 billion budget,  does not deal with specifics, such as book purchases and instructional materials.

Uri Monson, the chief financial officer, said one of the major factors behind the budget increase  was that the district will need $79 million  more to cover charter-school costs. He said that an expected increase in enrollment and higher charter payments would increase the overall tab, which the district is responsible for, from $777 million to $856 million.  

“While we do not have all the funds we need, our FY ’17-’18 budget moves ahead with investments designed to support academic outcomes and advance our mission of creating a great school close to where every child lives,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in a statement. 

The school system is in relatively sound shape financially at the moment, but Monson projects a deficit beginning in 2019 — one that, if unchecked, grows to $900 million by 2022.

The spending plan also calls for the district, responding to declining enrollment, to close three schools a year beginning in 2018-19. Last year’s budget planned for school closures in 2017-18, but the SRC has said it will not close schools next year.

“We’re a year closer to the cliff,” Monson said of the spending plan. “We’re going to need help from our funders. We are continuing to invest where we can, and invest responsibly. We don’t want to be in a position where we have to pull investments from classrooms.”

In addition to higher costs for the district’s 186 charter schools, the spending plan reflects rising costs for employee benefits, and planned salary increases.  Though the district must negotiate contracts with most of its unions, officials have included money equivalent to their current offers to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the unions representing school principals and school police officers.

The PFT has been without a contract since 2013. The district late last year offered the teachers’ union a deal worth over $100 million, but the PFT rejected it, saying a pact with no back pay was unacceptable. The PFT’s counter proposal would have cost $400 million above the district’s offer, officials said.

The district saw some positives this fiscal year — instead of a deficit, a fund balance for the third year in a row. It is also saving millions on a bond refunding, and realizing about $2 million in revenues from ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft.

Credit rating agencies recognized this, upgrading the school system’s credit outlook to stable.

But questions remain. Though state and local funding make up the lion’s share of the district’s budget, it does rely on federal funds to pay for some programs that could be jeopardized under President Trump’s current budget proposal. Title II funds, which pay for some early literacy and teacher training, would be completely eliminated.

“Where there are cuts, if we want to maintain the programs, it becomes an operating burden,” Monson said.

The state’s budget timeline is also a worry. It is scheduled to adopt a final spending plan by the end of June, but the likelihood of that happening is slim. The later Harrisburg acts, the tougher things get for Philadelphia, the higher its borrowing costs get.

“We’re watching it closely, and hopeful that they will complete a budget on time,” said Monson.

Barbara McDowell Dowdall, a retired district teacher and member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, called on the SRC and Hite “to create your own advocacy avenues” to obtain more money for the district. 

“Commissioners in the past have cited budget constraints as reasons for closing schools and libraries…and canceling their collective bargaining contract with the PFT,” she said.

And Dowdall urged them to use the data collected by the Public Interest Law Center and to work with groups like Public Citizens for Children and Youth and The Campaign for Fair Education Funding.

Last week, she said each SRC member was given a stamped and addressed postcard to send to a legislator in Harrisburg. Dowdall said if every student was given  one postcard to send to a state representative and another for a state senator,“Imagine the impact!”

The actual process of adopting the district’s budget will take months. Wilkerson said the SRC will hold a public hearing on the budget April 20. She said a City Council hearing is scheduled for May 10, and the SRC will finally vote on to adopt a final budget May 25.

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