Kristen Graham tweets School Reform Commission meeting

Update, 7:15 p.m.

The $2.5 billion 2012-13 Philadelphia School District budget passed unanimously, with SRC members making it clear that they were voting only on the spending plan, but not on any transformation plan.  "Shame on you!" shouts went up as commissioners voted.

Update, 6 p.m.

In the wildest SRC meeting in recent memory, an angry audience has halted the proceedings several times with chants, sign-waving and whistles.

Members of the public have been intermittently interrupting the meeting for a half hour and counting.

"We've listened to your feedback," Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon said.  The audience booed.  Nixon has said she wants to build a firewall around school budgets. 

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos, responding to public outrage over a proposed complete overhaul of the district, said that "we are not about privatizing public education."

"Bullshit," the audience shouted.

Update, 5:45 p.m.

Over the objection of hundreds, the School Reform Commission is poised to adopt a $2.5 billion 2012-13 billion budget at a dramatic Thursday night meeting interrupted several times by an angry public.

No one - activists or officials - likes the spending plan, which leaves many schools without full-time nurses or police officers and banks on new city money that may not come through.

But "in this circumstance, we have little choice," Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said in a press briefing held before Thursday night's SRC meeting. "We are effectively maxing out our credit card."

The district will borrow $218 million to meet expenses, but says it will be able to restore finances to structural balance - not spending more money than they take in - by 2013-14.

And if the $94 million expected from the mayor's Actual Value Initiative tax plan doesn't come through? Borrowing appears to be out.

Knudsen, who was brought in by the SRC in January to help manage the district out of crisis, said the district can borrow the $218 million.

"We don't have the capacity to go much beyond that, I don't believe," said Knudsen.

School budgets have already been decimated by two rounds of cuts this year, and officials are trying to avoid further reductions.

Hundreds rallied before the meeting began, shouting their objections to a budget they say shortchanges kids. The crowd - many of whom packed the SRC auditorium - briefly halted the meeting with cries of "Save Our Schools!"

But Knudsen said this budget stretches the district to the limits of its financial capabilities.

"This is why we're incuring a $218 million deficit," he said. "We're borrowing essentially to maintain the academic programs in the schools. I don't know what else to do. I don't know where else we go. We are at the best level of service that we can provide within the context of the funds that we have available."

A coalition organized to oppose the budget and a planned transformation of the school district - and some city councilpeople - wonder why the district is asking the city but not the state for more money.

Chairman Pedro Ramos said this SRC refuses to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors - budgeting based on hopes rather than reality.

"This year's students were subjected to at least three rounds of budget cuts because the adults last year did what they what they wished for and what they wanted to hear, as opposed to planning responsibly to meet the needs of children the best that they could," said Ramos.

Though the fiscal reality is ugly, principals and teachers, Ramos believes, would say, "just give me the real number, instead of giving me a fake number and then having to come back and cut two or three times."

It was the actions of the prior SRC and administrations that put the district in the shape it's in now - teetering on the brink of insolvency, Ramos said.

How bad are things? A few months ago, the newly-reconstituted SRC found the district in such dire financial shape that without corrective action, the district would have run out of cash this month, then again in July, "and would have gone so far under on cash that it couldn't come back," he said.

But cost-cutting actions taken by the SRC since January staved off the wolf at the door - for now.

The district is planning on $50 million in savings from modernizing its maintenance, transportation and custodial services, and it has sent layoff notices to all 2,700 members of 32BJ, the union representing bus aides, cleaners, building engineers and other blue collar workers.

Workers fear their jobs will be privatized to cut costs. 32BJ and the district are currently in negotiations, and union leaders say they have proposed cost savings.

City Council on Thursday passed a resolution saying they will hold up the SRC's budget until an agreement is reached with 32BJ. The first round of layoffs are scheduled to take effect July 1.

Ramos said that resolution does not affect the budget.

"We understand that there's a lot of sympathy in Philadelphia for unions," Ramos said. "But we are in a situation where we have to put the interests of our students - today's students and tomorrow's students - ahead of adults."

Negotiations with 32BJ continue, Knudsen said.

District leaders have also said they expect the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to come to the table soon, though its contract does not expire until August 2013. The district is banking on $156 million in savings from labor contracts in its five-year plan.

PFT leaders have said they will not negotiate early or make any financial concessions.

"You can't say that you're just about education and you're just about the kids when adults all refuse to do more or give something up," Ramos said. "We all share the circumstances in which we find ourselves today and in the next few years."

Ramos also questioned the motivation of the activists who protested at the meetings.

"I think parents are often drowned out by existing adult economic interests," he said. He said that the coalition organized to oppose the budget was being funded by unions, specifically by the PFT.


Inquirer schools reporter Kristen Graham is live tweeting today's School Reform Commission meeting and the protests planned by teachers, parents and students. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. On a mobile device? Click here to follow. Click to read today's story by Kristen.