Good budget news for Pa. schools - sort of

William R. Hite Jr., Philadelphia’s schools chief, said release of state aid would keep schools open past Jan. 29.

Philadelphia schools will remain open past Jan. 29, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Tuesday. Beyond that, not much else is certain.

Hours after Gov. Wolf announced that he would veto parts of the state budget but allow some emergency aid to flow to schools and social-service agencies, Hite said Philadelphia School District officials were awaiting details from Harrisburg on the exact amount they will receive and how far it might take them.

School systems across the region had similar reactions.

Absent any emergency aid, Hite had said, the Philadelphia district would likely be forced to halt classes Jan. 29.

Even now, he said, "I don't think we can get through a school year with only half of a state budget."

Things loosen up a little as city disbursements start to pick up in the next few months, Hite said, but it remains to be seen whether what has been done allows Philadelphia schools to guarantee classes through the end of the term.

Hite said he was grateful for Wolf's move and appreciative that "he's in a tough spot" between needing to keep agencies that service vulnerable populations afloat and getting the right budget.

"I'm in support of what the governor's attempting to do in terms of trying to ensure that there's more money for public school districts across the commonwealth," Hite said.

Still, the ongoing budget fight between Wolf, a Democrat, and Republican legislative leaders means uncertainty reigns, Hite said.

In the coming weeks, both Harrisburg and the district are due to introduce spending plans for the 2017 fiscal year.

"The revenue from this year will determine how we budget for next year," Hite said. "A lot of this stuff is still up in the air."

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney is "grateful" that schools will remain open for the foreseeable future, a spokeswoman said.

"But it doesn't change the fundamental issue - we need full and fair funding for our schools," added Lauren Hitt.

When the state took over Philadelphia schools in 2001, it pledged more fiscal support. Hitt said the city had stepped up to the plate, with $400 million in additional aid for the district over the last several years.

"Now it's time for them to do their job," Hitt said of the state.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the union whose support was a key to getting Wolf elected, said the governor was right to line-item veto "the travesty of a budget hastily passed last week" by the GOP-controlled House.

Philadelphia's public schools are not the only ones sweating out the seemingly endless budget drama. Suburban districts also found themselves relieved - temporarily, at least - by the governor's move Tuesday.

"We're still not sure what the magic release number is going to be," said Jennifer Hoff, president of the William Penn school board in Delaware County. "It's still a little minute-to-minute right now."

William Penn, which receives about 40 percent of its budget from the state, has been forced to make tough decisions in the last six months, including a vote last week to take out a $9.2 million loan to pay salaries through mid-February.

Hoff urged the Wolf administration to act quickly Tuesday, saying the loan agreement is slated to expire Monday. If substantial emergency funds are released in the next six days, Hoff said, the district may be able to avoid borrowing.

Still, Hoff is tempering her expectations.

"We don't have a lot of trust in the system," she said. "We never thought it would come to this."

For other school districts that were lucky enough to weather the impasse, frustration nonetheless abounded Tuesday. While district administrators welcomed Wolf's announcement, many criticized leaders in Harrisburg for being able to offer only emergency funds after six months of extended negotiations on a budget.

"Each year, we seem to find ourselves in this same conversation," said Cathy Taschner, superintendent of the Coatesville Area School District. "And it's difficult because on one hand, there is this extreme financial burden on schools and we need financial relief. But on the other hand, we don't want to accept a budget that sells the children of this commonwealth short."

kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146@newskag

www.philly.com/schoolfiles