Moment of Truth for Philly School Officials

Lately the Philadelphia School District has been going through a rough patch: Last year state leaders slashed its funding, and today it faces a $61 million budget gap. Now the city has its bets on a new chief recovery officer to turn the situation around.

Can Philly schools close the budget and get back on track? Vincent J. Brown

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This piece originally ran in The Philadelphia Tribune.

The Philadelphia School District has a long way to go before it can close a $61 million budget gap by June, but it hopes its fluidity, along with its appointment of Thomas Knudsen, will lead to a more efficient and solvent district.

Given the district’s multilayered problems and trying to improve matters under the auspices of damaging budgeting cuts, some wonder if the job is too much for the former PGW wunderkind-turned-chief recovery officer.

The $61 million is one thing – another range of issues, including the shuttering of several schools and the continual reorganization of school administrators and officials, rank very high on Knudsen’s to-do list – but the district believes it has its man.

“What I can say is, in a very short period of time, when the full body of the School Reform Commission was seated, members of the board moved to analyze the budget and where they stood, and made a very crucial decision to move forward, without delay,” and hire Knudsen, said Public School District spokesman Fernando Gallard. “The members of the SRC are committed to making sure the district does not find itself in a position that [these cuts] affect students.

“The steps the SRC took shows they are clearly very serious,” Gallard continued. “But we’ve got to be realistic; all cuts affect schools one way or the other.”

But where can the district find an additional $61 million to cut? The district – along with school systems throughout Pennsylvania – has had its budgets slashed by state Gov. Tom Corbett, who promised cuts to the education budget. Gallard said the state has cut an eye-popping $617 million from the budgets of public schools in the Commonwealth.

“When he was governor, Ed Rendell increased the education budget every year. Rendell made sure education was a priority,” said state Education spokesman Rob Broderick. “But those [budget increases] I don’t suspect will continue. Corbett needs to follow Rendell’s lead.”

Gallard foretells a doomsday situation if the district cannot meet its $61 million cut target. Former interim superintendent Leroy Nunery II was to lead the district back to fiscal sanity; in last week’s upheaval, Nunery was reassigned and now serves as special adviser to the SRC.

“We must pay our debt service to be able to barrow money in the future…[not paying] it would make us short on payroll,” Gallard said. “We may not be able to pay people in July for the work done in June. It would also mean carrying over a deficit from one school year to the next.”

Student advocates fear these demands will ultimately lead to cuts that will affect a student’s ability to learn.

“I’m not quite clear on why the Philadelphia School District’s budget deficit is as big as it is, especially given all the cutbacks we had,” said Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, who successfully intervened on behalf of students caught in the roiling funding argument between Corbett and the Chester Upland School District. “I think Philadelphia and Chester both show the need for transparency, so people can understand where the budget is coming from and why it’s so large.

“We know the state cut back on funding, but the deficit is much larger than the cutbacks…consequently, it leaves people wondering if and how the district can survive these times.”

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chair of Council’s education committee, also wishes for further transparency from the district.

“We’re still losing traditional schools and charter schools, attendance is down, and that’s very frightening,” said Blackwell. “What we intend is for the SRC and its leadership to talk to our committee about where they are and what they are doing to define in detail how they want to do these cuts.”

Gallard believes these mandated cuts should have minimal affect on the quality of education students receive. He said Philadelphia students already excel under ongoing cuts, and they should continue to do so.

“We have had many successes in increasing net gains and test scores; the district has created a system of schools that provide choice to parents, to the point now where we have one-third of all students in charter schools,” Gallard said. “There’s been an increase in the Annual Yearly Progress in 161 schools, and we are in the process of shifting low-performance seats to higher-performing seats.

“We’ve accomplished a lot, but if we don’t take care of our financial issues, we will be in a serious position of basically trying to meet our financial demands in the future.”

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Tags: philadelphiagovernancepublic schools

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