Philadelphia school leaders came to City Council Monday with a big request. In the midst of a massive property-tax overhaul, they want additional money to help plug a $304 million budget hole. Their appeal also comes after the city increased property taxes for the past three years.
Superintendent William Hite Jr. said the school district needs an extra $60 million from the city and $120 million from the state just to maintain the same level of services next fiscal year.
"These funds will only fill a budget shortfall," he said. "They will not allow us to provide the education that our young Philadelphians deserve."
Without the extra money, Hite said that schools would go without assistant principals, guidance counselors, librarians, music teachers, athletics and summer programming.
School officials framed their budget plan as a "shared sacrifice." They've decided to close schools. They are asking for extra money from the city and state. They've won concessions from the school's blue-collar workers, and they want them from the teachers union, too.
Council members grilled Hite and School Reform Commission chairman Pedro Ramos about their request. They wanted to know if it seemed likely that the state would come up with more money.
Ramos said state lawmakers are no longer questioning the need for additional funds, but now "it's a question of the feasibility and the manner." Plus, he said, their view of Philadelphia has changed for the better.
"I don't hear some of the negativity that's specific to Philadelphia that I've heard in the past," Ramos said. "There is recognition of the efforts locally that have been made in a short period of time to try to right the ship."
Schools already do without basics
Councilwoman Cindy Bass said that many schools in her Northwest Philadelphia district already lack basic services. She asked how schools would ever move past the status quo.
"Most of them don't have libraries or librarians," she said. "I can't tell you about the principal I was with who had to stop meeting with us so that he could run out and give asthma medication ... cause he's a school nurse, too."
Mayor Michael Nutter supports additional funding for the schools, but hasn't released a specific plan for raising it yet. Council President Darrell Clarke asked Ramos how he would like the city to raise money. But Ramos didn't provide specifics.
"So, basically, you're saying that Council should be essentially responsible for coming up with a strategy for the $60 million?" Clarke said to Ramos.
"I think, collectively, we're all responsible for getting there," responded Ramos.
"All right, I'm not going to get the answer I want to get from you," Clarke said eventually. "I see that."
Council has about nine weeks before it must pass a budget.
Protesters march two miles to deliver message
A group of parents, teachers and other activists marched nearly two miles Monday, from Queen Village to City Hall, to demand more funding for schools. Outside of City Hall, they shouted, "Fund our schools! Fund our schools!" When they moved inside to Council's chambers, their chant changed only slightly: "What do we want? Funding! When do we want it? Now!"
Gladys Martin, whose son attends Chester A. Arthur School, was one of the protesters.
"I'm not only fighting for him, but I'm fighting for all the other kids," she said. "Everything that they can possibly give to help the kids to be successful in school would really be appreciated."