Eleventh hour for city schools budget

UPDATE, 2:50 p.m.

Mayor Nutter is urging the SRC to pass a placeholder budget tonight, anticipating that Harrisburg will come through with the funding the school district is asking for. The alternative, Nutter wrote in a letter to the SRC sent today, would force "cuts that are so painful that they raise serious questions about whether it is safe to open schools." 

"Without further action by the Commonwealth, the District would be facing a $93 million gap. the District would be facing a $93 million gap. In order to close that gap, it would have to go through yet another round of painful cuts that could increase class size to more than 40 students, further reduce our teaching force by 1,300, reduce transportation options so that children have to walk longer distances to schools and make cuts to alternative education."

The mayor noted that any further cuts would come on top of several rounds of prior reductions that have left schools struggling to provide the most basic services to students.

"I urge you not to pass any budget that does not allow Superintendent Hite to responsibly conclude that learning can happen in a safe environment," Nutter wrote. "We should not accept funding levels that leave schools as empty shells that are not appropriately equipped and staffed. I will continue to work with you, Dr. Hite, Council President Clarke and the Philadelphia delegation in Harrisburg to get the District the resources it needs."

PREVIOUSLY: In May, the School Reform Commission took the unprecedented step of refusing to pass a budget for next school year. It wasn't satisfied with the levels of funding assigned to it from the city and state, and said passing a spending plan before those pieces were nailed down was foolish.

The city stepped up with all the money the Philadelphia School District has asked for. But the state budget has not yet passed, and the news out of Harrisburg so far is: the $2-per-pack cigarette tax the district is banking on to get to a "status quo" budget that still leaves many schools without full-time counselors or nurses is dead in the water. Gov. Corbett has said unequivocally that without the Philadelphia delegation's votes for a pension-reform plan, the city schools are out of luck.

If the district doesn't pass a budget today, it can't spend money tomorrow, the beginning of the new fiscal year. So the SRC will meet tonight at 5:30 to pass something - though what it will act upon is not yet clear. Without all the funding it's asking for, the district may need to issue layoff notices.

On Friday, SRC Chairman Bill Green and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. sent the Philadelphia delegation a letter stating, again, their case - though it wasn't news to legislators, as district leaders say they have been lobbying hard in recent weeks and months. 

Hite and Green wrote about the district's "significant and urgent" needs. 

After the city's action, the budget gap is $66 million, they reminded legislators, but that sum assumes "the $39 million of additional funding and/or spending flexibility that was proposed in the Governor's budget. Without this funding, our budget gap increases to $105 million."

 "Facing this significant gap," Hite and Green wrote, "we are depending on the state budget process to help avoid further devastating cuts to Philadelphia public schools. We implore the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Senate to come together on revenue measures that would provide needed funding to our schools, and not to entertain any proposals that would strip revenues out of the District (for example, by re-splitting the sales tax between the municipal pension fund and the District, or dividing cigarette tax revenues similarly).  We know you and the delegation members share our dedication to Philadelphia’s schoolchildren. Thank you for your support."

Stay tuned. I will be live tweeting the meeting.