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Philadelphia's School Budget Seeks to Add Programs After Years of Cuts

After years of program and staff cuts and intense angst over revenues, the Philadelphia School District is finally talking again about adding programs.

The School Reform Commission, the board that oversees the city's schools, approved a $2.89 billion lump sum budget resolution for the 2016 fiscal year on Thursday that, if fully funded, would allow the school district to expand art and music programs, add more tutoring, Advanced Placement and credit recovery courses, as well as increase counseling and nursing services.

The budget relies heavily on about $264.7 million in promises of additional aid from the state and the city, which the district has not yet seen. 

"The School District of Philadelphia is committed to ensuring equity and stability through evidence-based initiatives strongly focused on neighborhood schools," William R. Hite, the district superintendent, said in a statement.  "Securing adequate funds is vital to achieving our strategic mission and demonstrating our core values. As we have stated repeatedly, the district needs sustainable, recurring revenue for transformative student and school outcomes." 

While optimistic, the budget still has an $84.7 million shortfall for the 2016 fiscal year. But it is a far cry from last year, when Hite unveiled the budget with a simultaneous call for an additional $216 million to adequately educate the district's children.

That set of a months-long campaign of school officials, parents, teachers, and students advocating for more money from the city and the state to stave off cuts and ensure that the schools had the resources to open on time.  

The district said the shortfall for the 2016 fiscal year was the result of the reduction in one-time funds it used in the last year, including $20.4 million in property sales; a $29.9 million grant from the city; and increases in healthcare, pension, charter school and debt service payments.

The atmosphere around school funding is vastly different in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia this year than it had been under the previous administration.

Over the last two years, the Philadelphia school district has dramatically slashed programs, cut staff, and closed nearly 30 schools to deal with a perennial funding crisis.

This year, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to ramp up education funding, and Philadelphia stands to get a boost in both basic education funding and for special education services. The governor's plan also calls for changes in the charter reimbursement law, which would net the district about $76.7 million, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Thursday initial budget announcement was the beginning of the long budget process in the city. More information, including detailed expenses and allocations, will be released in late April, and public hearing will be held on April 29.  A vote by the School Reform Commission is scheduled for May 28. 

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