In the opinion of Philadelphia schools chief Paul Vallas, the proposed budget for next school year is a status quo spending plan that won't change much
the classroom - despite $100 million in proposed cuts.
Yesterday, the district held its first public hearing on the $2.18 billion budget for the 2007-08 school year. It released a phone-book-sized budget document, giving a broad outline of how the money will be spent.
But the accompanying presentation by Vallas and his administration providing specific budget details was delayed until April 25, while last-minute tinkering takes place. Final approval of the budget by the School Reform Commission is scheduled for May 29.
During a news conference after yesterday's hearing, Vallas vowed that if the district received the millions in additional state and city funding that it was seeking, the budget would not "cut back on any of our core programs."
He added that about 160 teaching positions would be cut because of an increase in charter-school enrollment - projected at about 3,000 new students next year - but added that those were the only teaching job cuts that he anticipated. In previous years, there has been enough turnover in teaching jobs to absorb cuts of that scale.
Likewise, he said, discretionary funding - money that goes to individual schools for a variety of uses - would not be cut. School safety, school choice initiatives, crisis intervention programs - all would be maintained, he said.
After the district ran a $37 million deficit this school year and had to make cuts to keep the shortfall from growing even larger, "the important thing this year is to stabilize the budget, and this does that," he said.
Most of the savings in the new budget, Vallas said, would come from combining district regional offices and cutting central office expenses, streamlining professional development, selling district properties, renegotiating contracts with outside parties, allowing for lower-than-expected health-care increases, and combining bus routes and curtailing new ridership. Funding for the six educational management organizations that now run 41 district schools would be cut by $12 million, he said, from the current $18 million level.
Still, Vallas acknowledged, all those promises depend on the city's coming up with $27 million from a combination of increased property-tax revenue and the city's paying for its employees now on the district's payroll. And it would take about $13 million in new money from the state that is not in Gov. Rendell's proposed education budget, plus the ability to spend some state education funding in different ways than the laws now allow (such as spending money on existing and not new programs, and using tutoring money during the school day).
To the handful of parents who showed up at yesterday's hearing to talk about the budget, the status quo is not acceptable. Shawmont Home and School Association president Henry Levant reminded the School Reform Commission of "the good old days" of 2003, when there was talk of reducing class size and adding programs to schools, not maintaining them as they now are.
"We have a library with no librarian, our class sizes are exploding, we have multiple split-grade classrooms, we have no art teacher, and our after-school support programs have been devastated," he said. "And we are now bracing ourselves for additional cuts. If this isn't madness, I don't know what is."
Asked about the shortcomings lamented by the parents, Vallas acknowledged that the budget was "not going to address the issue of reducing class size or adding more counselors or adding more social workers. We're going to continue to have shortages in those areas."
He added that the district leadership had pledged to eventually reduce class size, refurbish old schools and build new ones, cut the dropout rate, and carry out a host of other programs.
But to accomplish these goals, Vallas said, "it is going to require a substantial increase in funding beyond what we anticipate" in this budget.
"Do you want to take reform to the next level?" he asked. "If you do, you have to decide what school reform is worth."