School budget cuts could drive one family to suburbia

'We've had it'

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Micki Rice and her family may be headed for suburbia because of the uncertain financial status of city schools. She is accompanied by her family (from left) Starr, 10; Derrick, 12; and husband Bill Rice holding daughter Katerina.

The "for sale" sign is still up outside Bill and Micki Rice's house on Sussex Lane in the Morrell Park section of Northeast Philadelphia. But the sale is all but done; the buyer's inspector came by yesterday.

All but made, too, is the decision of whether Bill and Micki, their infant daughter and Micki's two school-age children will stay in the city or head for the suburbs.

And the financial status of the School District of Philadelphia figures prominently in the mix.

"I was always under the impression that the district was trying to go bankrupt so the state would take it over," said Bill Rice, 35, a computer network engineer. "That's happened, and nothing much has changed. I figure it's better to cut bait and run."

On Tuesday, it was Micki Rice, 33, who did the talking about the schools. She's the president of the home and school associations at Hancock School, where daughter Starr is a fourth grader, and LaBrum Middle School, where son Derrick is in sixth grade.

Micki made her first-ever visit to the School Reform Commission, which put off until today the adoption of a stripped-down and revenue-short budget for the coming school year. She spoke about what the budget-cutting was doing to schools she knows and loves - and her fears about what is yet to come.

Give me a reason to stay in Philadelphia, she begged the commissioners. Keep the city a place where middle-class people can feel comfortable trusting their children's futures to the public schools.

"We've had it, we're just fed up," she said yesterday. "We're really worried that every year they're going to keep taking more money away, and that will make things worse."

Now on maternity leave from a job as a teacher's assistant at Hancock, Rice has seen the impact of the cuts on a school she still admires.

There were 20 students in daughter Starr's third-grade class last school year, 32 in her fourth-grade class this year. The 10-year-old has noticed the difference.

"The teacher might not call on you when you raise your hand, and sometimes you get less attention" said Starr, who was wearing a gold Hancock T-shirt and dark blue Hancock sweats in honor of Spirit Week. "I want to stay in that school."

Next year, Hancock will likely have some split classes, mixing kids of different ages so the school can get by with fewer teachers, Micki said.

Understand that the Rices aren't selling their two-story, three-bedroom rowhouse purely because of the schools. With the arrival of the baby and with Micki's mother living with them, they need a bigger place.

But education will have a lot to say about whether they wind up inside or outside the city limits.

Derrick will be going to high school in two years, and the Rices worry about the options should they stay in the city - assuming he didn't get into a charter or a magnet or faraway Central.

"Besides, what are things going to be like five years from now when this one's ready to go to school?" Micki said, cradling her infant, Katerina, in her arms. "You look at the numbers they're projecting, and it's ridiculous."

So even though Micki has lived in the Northeast most of her life and Bill grew up next door on Sussex Lane, the Rices are almost surely headed to suburbia. They've been looking at houses in Aston in distant Delaware County.

"I'm going to miss this area - the neighbors are great, the [property] taxes are low, the streets feel safe," Micki said.

"I've had people from the neighborhood ask me why I went down there to speak to the School Reform Commission since we're already moving. I told them I went because their kids are still going to be here. I want things to be better."


Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.