SRC budget relies on $440 million that's not assured

PHILADELPHIA The Philadelphia School District is forecasting a budget of $2.8 billion next year - a figure that is up from this year's $2.4 billion outlay, but calls for $440 million in new money that the district is not assured of getting from the city or the state.

Still, the budget would provide only what Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. called the basics for school reform.

Acknowledging there were some risks involved in its forecasting, the School Reform Commission on Thursday night adopted a "lump sum" budget statement that projects slightly better conditions in city classrooms for 2014-15.

Improvement is necessary, officials said, for a district that has barely scraped by this year with major reductions in staff and many schools operating without adequate supplies, full-time nurses, or counselors.

"The district continues to be in a dire financial situation," SRC Chairman Bill Green said Thursday night. "We are still left without adequate funding to provide even the most basic services to our students."

To begin to address those circumstances, the school system has budgeted for $120 million from the extension of an extra 1 percent city sales tax, which requires action by City Council. And it's counting on $320 million on top of that, money that would have to come from the city and state.

Neither of those projections is a sure thing.

The SRC has been clear: It will not spend money it does not have, as some prior administrations have done.

So without the new money, "further service reductions would happen in schools," chief financial officer Matt Stanski said.

Stanski also told the SRC that the district will carry a $28 million deficit into next school year, not $14 million as projected just a few weeks ago.

The difference, Stanski said, comes from higher-than-planned utility costs because of the harsh winter, and more special-education costs. More students are being diagnosed with more severe issues, and out-of-district placements are often costly, he said.

The spending proposal riled some members of the public.

Terrilyn McCormick noted that this year, parents have paid for teachers, counselors, activities, and supplies. They have organized rallies and lobbied lawmakers.

But, she told the SRC, "we are left out of talks about the School District's precious resources and how they are spent," said McCormick, whose children attend Penn Alexander and the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Mark Wilkins, a teacher at South Philadelphia High School, suggested the district was unfairly trying to squeeze teachers to balance its budget. This week, officials said they would use special powers given to them by the state to bypass seniority in filling open jobs.

The district also wants major financial concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, whose contract expired in August.

But, Wilkins said, a real problem is the cost to the district of the city's growing charter-school population. In 2011, the district spent 18 percent of its budget on charters. This year, it is spending 29 percent on charters.

"There is no way to right the financial ship of the district as it continues to bleed students - and money with them - to charters," Wilkins said, telling the SRC the school system must compete for students.

Earlier in the day, some district principals made the case for more dollars for their students in a news conference.

"We urge City Council to now do their part and to make the money available so that our schools don't have to choose between having a librarian or a science teacher or a gym teacher," said Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy, a Center City magnet.

Principals got their proposed school budgets for next year, and things look grim, said Karen Thomas, principal at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary in Roxborough.

"We're running out of ideas, and we need help," Thomas said.

In a pre-SRC meeting rally and in remarks to the commission, State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) offered what he said was one way to help.

Hughes announced a proposal to generate an additional $236 million in new state funds for the district through a Marcellus Shale tax.

"Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation where there is no severance tax on shale drilling," Hughes told more than 300 teachers, parents, and students outside the district's administration building before the SRC meeting. "We let these folks drill, take our gas, and make all the money they want out of the process. That's not fair."

In all, Hughes, the Democratic chair of the Appropriations Committee, said his bill would provide $375 million more for school districts across the state in the next fiscal year and more than $1 billion by 2020.

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Inquirer staff writers Claudia Vargas and Martha Woodall contributed to this article.