Philly schools want to start talks to find new revenues by 2019

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William Hite, superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia; Marjorie Neff, chairwoman of the School Reform Commission; and Uri Monson, chief financial officer for the district, take part in proceedings during a hearing in City Council Chambers at City Hall.

For the first time in years, Philadelphia School District officials did not go hat in hand when they presented a proposed $2.8 billion budget for city schools to City Council on Tuesday.

But they told Council members that the district wanted to begin talks with city and state officials now about how to address a funding crunch that is expected in 2019 because projected costs are rising at nearly twice the rate as revenues.

"Working together, we have an opportunity to develop a road map to head off these challenges," said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. "We are committed to getting ahead of the problem, and want to work with the city and state now, while we have time provided by modest fund balances to find recurring sources of revenue."

Throughout the daylong hearing, School Reform Commission Chair Marjorie Neff, Hite, and his top administrators fielded questions from Council on topics ranging from class size, truancy, and technical and career education for high school students to the lasting impact that closed school buildings have on their surrounding communities.

"There's a huge effect," Councilwoman Cindy Bass said. "The School District cannot close schools . . . without having plans for the buildings."

She urged the district to consider that impact and work with Council and the community to reduce it - especially if the district moves ahead with plans to close three schools per year starting in 2017-18 if district enrollment continues to decline.

There are 134,000 students enrolled in city schools.

During his testimony and in response to questions, Hite promised to end the controversial practice of placing two grades in a single classroom - unless it is done for academic reasons; reiterated his pledge that every school will have at least one nurse and a counselor in the fall; and said the district was committed to making sure students had access to safe drinking water at school.

The superintendent also said the district's drive to recruit teachers to fill 1,400 vacancies before the fall was on track.

"Right now we have over 1,200 applications from external candidates with more coming in," Hite said.

He also told Council that the district was determined to reach a new collective-bargaining agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to replace the pact that expired in 2013.

Hite said the district was continuing to talk to the PFT under the auspices of a state mediator.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke asked Hite if revenue had been built into the district's proposed budget to support "a reasonable contract for the PFT."

Hite noted that the district was also in talks to reach a new contact with the union that represents principals, as well as with the union that represents drivers, bus attendants, maintenance workers, cleaners, and building engineers.

"We have some money in the budget for all labor negotiations," Hite said.

Uri Monson, the district's chief financial officer, said that funds for new contracts were included in the $440 million in new investments that the district plans to make over the next five years.

Councilwoman Helen Gym, whose questioning ranged over an array of topics throughout the day, pressed the district to restore arts and music programs that were cut a few years ago to save money and to add resources to improve schools.

Rather than passively accepting the loss of 1,000 students who leave the district for charter schools each year, she said, the system should address the reasons.

"The district will be spending an additional $180 million next year, two-thirds of which will go toward charters," Gym said. "If the district wants to end the drain of students out of our district, then it must commit to the districtwide investments in schools that students, families, and communities demand."

Nearly 70,000 city students are enrolled in 83 charters in the city and the 12 statewide cyber charters.

martha.woodall@phillynews.com 215-854-2789 @marwooda