Philly school start still uncertain despite $265M

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PHILADELPHIA – Gov. Tom Corbett announced Wednesday the state would advance $265 million to the cash-strapped Philadelphia schools, but the superintendent said the money won’t guarantee classes will start on time.


Pennsylvania’s largest district still has an $81 million budget gap, and officials continue to weigh options including massive layoffs, a delayed start and a shortened school year, Superintendent William Hite said. A decision will be made Aug. 15.


“It changes nothing about what we’re considering,” Hite said, adding the schools need funding “not just to start the year, but to ensure that the people we carry on payroll are still on payroll at the end of the year.”


The up-front funding authorized by Corbett represents early disbursement of cash the schools would normally receive throughout the academic year. Corbett contends it will save the district up to $5 million in short-term borrowing costs and allow buildings to open as planned Sept. 8.


But Hite, speaking immediately after Corbett at the same news conference, would not commit to that timetable. Instead, he joined the governor in imploring lawmakers to reconvene in Harrisburg and approve a $2-per-pack city cigarette tax to generate more than $80 million for the schools.


The tax legislation has won preliminary votes in both the House and Senate. But squabbling within the GOP majority over tacked-on amendments has prevented it from being passed and sent to Corbett, who supports it.


House Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, said Wednesday he’s confident an agreement can be worked out “once we’re back in session.” The House is scheduled to return from its annual break Sept. 15 – a week after school starts.


The district, which serves about 200,000 students, has slashed staff and closed more than two dozen schools in recent years to offset rising costs. The deep cuts led the state-run School Reform Commission to reject this year’s proposed $2.4 billion budget as educationally unsound. It later adopted a $2.6 billion “placeholder” budget that assumes additional revenue.


On Wednesday, Corbett accused the city teachers union of not making enough concessions. He noted the system’s pension costs have increased over the past decade by $66 million, or 188 percent.


“It is totally unsustainable in the long run,” the governor said.


Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan noted the union granted $30 million in concessions through a contract extension in 2011. During current negotiations, he added, the district rejected a union proposal that included no raise for one year and some health care savings. Teachers have been working without a contract for the past year.


Later Wednesday, Democratic members of the Senate Appropriations Committee held a field hearing at City Hall during which Hite and Mayor Michael Nutter again pleaded for passage of the cigarette tax.


Without it, the district “does not have the necessary revenue to open schools on time, safely, and for the entire year,” Nutter said, according to his prepared remarks. “Delay equates directly to further painful losses for our students. It is that simple.”


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