The head of Philadelphia schools just said he may not have enough money to open the school doors in early September...39 days from now.
Superintendent William Hite said that his voice might stay calm, but he is definitely not calm about whether he will be able to open schools on time. He was expecting at least to have access by now to $50 million in new funds from the city -- and he still doesn't have it as Mayor Nutter and Council are still at odds over the best way to make it available.
"I will not be irresponsible in putting students into environments that are not able to serve their needs," Hite said in an interview Wednesday. "At the moment, a principal and a secretary in a 3,000-student high school is not sufficient to serve the needs of students there." Northeast High School has 3,000 students.
So far, he has access to only a small portion of the additional funds from what one frustrated officials described as the "contortionist deal" worked out in Harrisburg to close the District's financial hole. The $50 million was supposed to be a loan against a future sales tax extension that the City Council has yet to approve, partly because members don't agree that all of the revenue should be directed to the District.
And a promised one-shot, $45 million state payment is dependent on certification from the state Secetary of Education that the District is putting certain reforms in place. Presumably, this will require changes like the severe dilution if not elimination of seniority protection, a change that is anathema to the teachers' union.
Look, I know what some of you are going to say and to some extent I agree -- there's an old-fashioned game of "chicken" being played here. We're in a stage where officials, including and maybe especially Hite, have an incentive to make the schools funding crisis look even worse than it is, because there's a coordinated campaign to put pressure on the teachers' union to make massive givebacks. We've seen this before, and usually schools open up-- with some "tolerable" program cuts -- and life goes on.
Still, the reason they call it "chicken" is because occasionally neither car veers off and there's a horrific two-car pile -up and people get hurt. I can't help but think this is one of those times. Remember, the same dire talk was used to extract money out of the hard Republican hearts out in Harrisburg -- and it didn't really work, did it? The money that did result from all the maneuvering in June not only fell short of the goal, but what emerged, Comcastically, was kind of a lazy, half-assed solution on which almost all of the money was contingent on things that right now aren't even happening anyway.
And here's the thing -- that lack of urgency is felt, palpably, by the teachers and other unionized school employees who are being asked to pay most (way too much, in my opinion) of the giant bill just for opening the schoolhouse door. Rather than bargain, the teachers are out protesting -- and it's hard to blame them. The more engaged parent activists are also in a state of revolt -- so much so that district officials are now afraid to talk to them! Mayor Nutter, whose job was largely cut out of responsibility for the schools mess in 2001 but who you think still might care, since the total collapse of #PhillyEducation during his watch might mar his legacy in City Hall, don't you think -- just spent two weeks on the beach in St. Lucia. The news media is on it...just as soon as we can free our up our trucks from the Riley Cooper news conference.
At what point does the Philadelphia schools crisis become a crisis? When the teachers start walking a picket lines rather than try to survive in the city on a 13 percent pay cut? When thousands of kids from one of the most poverty-plagued school districts in America miss class for a week? A month? Four months? When Philadelphia knocks Detroit off the magazine covers as the poster child for urban chaos ?