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Philadelphia Schools Face Another Impending Budget Crisis

By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

Already functioning with a shortage of funds, staff, and supplies, the Philadelphia School District is now staring down a possible budget deficit of $400 million for the 2014-2015 school year, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

State budget cuts resulted in a $304 million deficit this year for Philadelphia schools. Further, the district lost $134 million in federal grants.

Just to run the schools at a minimum level, the district will need $300 million next year, as it did this year. An additional $100 million would be needed to pay next year's bills. Right now, hundreds of schools are already wanting for counselors, nurses, adequate books, and after-school activities.

Earlier this year, the district borrowed $300 million from the city and state to fund the current school year, avoiding what Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. described as a "doomsday scenario." However, the district's chief financial officer, Matthew Stanski, told the city council's education committee that almost all of that aid was one-time funding, according to the Inquirer.

In an interview this week with Education Week, Stanski explained that the state legislature granted the city council the authority to extend a 1 percent sales tax in Philadelphia that could start going toward funding schools for the next year. "But the city has yet to do that," he said. 

It's not just these funds that the district has to worry about, though. Higher pensions and health benefits, utility expenses, charter school payments, and salaries means the district will also have to account for an expected $75 million to $100 million increase in costs.

The committee hearing was held specifically to discuss state funding for Philadelphia schools and the district's continuing financial woes.

In the past few years, Philadelphia has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid and Pennsylvania is only one of three states that has a public-school-funding formula that is not based on individual students' learning needs. Instead, the state uses a block-grant funding model.

Stanski explained that the district's enrollment has gone up by 4,000-5,000 students since the district switched to block-grant funding, which funds schools through a legislative appropriation determined each year.

The district, which is predominantly lower-income, also has a large number of special education and English-language learners, said Stanski. "An equitable distribution would take that into account. A block grant does not."

Though the council members agreed that the state needed a funding formula that wouldn't require the district to beg for money every year, they also expressed frustration with district officials for not producing 2015 state funding request information in a timely manner.

Council members David Oh and Jannie L. Blackwell also suggested that, though Philadelphia has spent much less per student than surrounding districts, the $11,000 per student that it did spend was not spent well. Additionally, the city's schools have received millions of dollars from private foundations. At present, only about half of Philadelphia's students perform at grade level in reading and math.

Some point to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett for the district's current crisis, accusing the state of starving its best-known city.

The district was put under state control in 2001 because of dysfunction in its elected school board and persistently low test scores and graduation rates.

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