Philly officials: Release $45M so schools can open

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PHILADELPHIA – City and state officials called on the governor Tuesday to release $45 million in promised aid so that public schools can start on time, but Pennsylvania’s budget secretary said the money would only be disbursed if the district can extract major concessions from the teachers union.


The stalemate comes as the clock ticks down on a deadline imposed by Superintendent William Hite, who said the cash-strapped district needs $50 million by Friday in order to open buildings with sufficient staffing.


More than a dozen Democratic lawmakers held a news conference at City Hall to demand that Republican officials turn over the funding, which was contingent on the district making financial, academic and operational changes.


Those reforms are being made, the Philadelphia legislators said, adding there was any never any stipulation about union givebacks.


“The conditions have been met. Release the money,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes.


The state’s largest district laid off nearly 20 percent of its staff in the face of rising costs and a $304 million deficit. Hite said he cannot safely begin classes Sept. 9 without hiring back some of those employees.


Yet Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said the schools must first negotiate a teachers contract with substantial savings and educational reforms. The state needs assurances that the district will be financially viable before making additional investments, Zogby said in a statement.


Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said his members already make 19 percent less than their peers in neighboring suburbs and pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for school supplies. Now, the district has asked for pay cuts of up to 13 percent, he said.


“Expecting school district employees to pay for funding the schools is absolutely unacceptable,” Jordan said. “That is the responsibility of the commonwealth.”


The $45 million was essentially a windfall of federal funds given to the state through a deal brokered by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-Philadelphia. The money was earmarked for Philadelphia schools, said Brady, who blamed state House Republicans – not Gov. Tom Corbett – for the holdup.


“Now it looks like they’re holding the kids hostage again, and they’re holding the unions hostage, and that wasn’t the deal I made with them,” he said.


Brady warned that such tactics could backfire on state lawmakers looking for federal funding for future projects.


Zogby suggested that city officials “do their part” by voting to extend an increase in Philadelphia’s sales tax, which could generate $120 million per year. However, City Council President Darrell Clarke has been eyeing some of that money for the city’s underfunded pension system.


School officials have said they don’t care where the $50 million comes from.


But a parents group said even that amount is not enough. The district, which serves about 204,000 traditional and charter school students, originally asked for $180 million from the city and state.


“We do not want money to open buildings,” Parents United for Public Education said in a statement. “We want funding to educate our children in the way in which they deserve.”


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