The Philadelphia School District and the Chester Upland School District are in trouble.
Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission revealed last week the district will have to cut an additional $61 million by June.
The SRC also named turnaround expert Thomas Knudsen as “chief recovery officer” to restore the district to fiscal health. Knudsen will serve as both superintendent and chief financial officer.
Leroy Nunery, the former interim superintendent, and Michael Masch, the former chief financial officer, will continue to work for the district in new roles.
In Chester Upland the situation is both dire and urgent.
The district has run out of money thanks to a combination of bad management and declining enrollment. The district is staying open thanks to teachers and staff who agreed to work for free.
Gov. Tom Corbett first balked at helping the district at all, but after a public outcry he has now pledged to provide $3.2 million in funding — but that will only cover one month.
Both Philadelphia and Chester Upland are financially strapped school districts that need state financial assistance to stay open.
There is plenty of blame to go around for what went wrong. But after the school officials have been demoted and the teachers have been demonized and the students demoralized, the schools still have to stay open, and that is going to require more money.
Local and state politicians, was well as school officials, are going to need to work together to turn around these beleaguered districts. Officials should learn from other urban school districts that have faced similar problems. Why waste valuable money and time on unworkable solutions that have already failed in other districts?
While it may be expedient to blame local school officials, the state can not relieve itself of its responsibility. In the case of Philadelphia, the state bears direct responsibility for the present management structure of the school district. The state must also be held accountable for the drastic reduction in funding to Pennsylvania school districts. Funding to school districts was cut by more than $900 million for 2011–12.
Students in the Philadelphia and Chester Upland school districts can not be allowed to suffer because of the failure of the adults.
Remember: This is about the students. Funding their education is absolutely paramount.
School district faces $39 million gap requiring still more cuts
On Wednesday, with some new faces in place, School Reform Commission members, before a packed auditorium at School District headquarters on Broad Street that required an overflow room, contorted their faces and shifted uncomfortably in their seats as Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch told a disbelieving group that the District has to make $39 million more in reductions.
“We have some bad news, but we have some good news as well,” Masch began. “I will get to the unpleasant first. These are difficult times, and unfortunately, they are not ending any time soon.”
Masch announced approximately $17 million in new cuts, and then said this leaves approximately $22 million more to be axed in the latest round. Individual school budgets, already skeletal, could be slashed, he said, by another one percent, or an average of $40,000 per school.
The $17 million in proposed cuts is expected to come from the areas of professional development, English-language learner instructors, psychologists and music, sports, educational technology and bilingual counseling assistants.
“There they go again, doing what they do best, making cuts that directly affect the poorest people in the city,” said one woman, who would not identify herself as she exited the auditorium rather than wait for Masch to conclude his approximately 45-minute presentation.
After the $17 million in cuts is realized, the School District will still be desperately trying to eliminate the remaining $22 million shortfall. Acting superintendent Leroy Nunery and acting SRC chairman Wendell Pritchett have asked Masch for proposals recommending where the next round of cuts to reduce the shortfall will come from.
“These are difficult times for anyone in the system — students, parents, teachers, employees — they are hard for us all,” Pritchett said. “And unfortunately, they are not ending any time soon.”
Even with the $44 million in savings the district realized because of concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the principals’ union, the District had been banking on savings from union concessions in the neighborhood of $75 million.
Even the good news that Masch promised was not nearly as good as advertised.
He reported that when the District closed its books on the last school year in June, it did so with an $18.2 million surplus, good news — until he explained how that surplus came about.
In the robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul fashion that has become typical in Philadelphia’s public schools, the District had to shift a state grant received for the 2012 fiscal year into the 2011 budget. While this is permitted, the move created a matching hole in the 2012 budget.
Masch pointed out that most future cuts will have to be discretionary moves because “law” and/or “collective bargaining agreements” prevent them from coming from other areas.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first attended by mayoral SRC appointee Lorene Cary. The SRC is still awaiting the state Senate confirmations of gubernatorial appointees Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun.
Things won’t be any easier for the School District at next week’s meeting, which will be televised for the first time, the District announced. That meeting (Wednesday) will include recommendations for school closings and consolidations.