By Denise Clay
You couldn’t blame Arlene Ackerman, superintendent for the School District of Philadelphia, if she wanted to change her name and move to another country.
That’s because she’s been getting it from all sides thanks to a $629 million hole in the school district’s budget. The hole has led to the kind of budget cuts that have made cutting programs and staff a necessity.
Gov. Tom Corbett made good on his electoral promise to cut the budget for public schools and because of this the district is looking at some really tough choices.
There were 3,000 layoffs projected due to budget cuts. Of those 3,000, 1,500 are on hold due to a court injunction. Ackerman came to the city asking for help and more money, and Mayor Michael Nutter has been trying to come up with a way through either a real estate tax or a sugary drinks tax to try and come up with the $75-$110 million the district is asking for.
Attempts to reach SRC Chair Robert Archie were unanswered at press time.
But in exchange for that, the city wants more accountability of how the money is being spent. Mayor Nutter sent Ackerman a nine-page letter outlining an agreement between the city and the district that would allow the city more access to the district’s books. The School Reform Commission passed a resolution that would make that happen at its regular meeting on Wednesday.
“We value the city’s cooperation,” said Joseph Dworetzky, a member of the SRC. “The city is one of our main funding partners. We’re glad that they’ll be looking at things with us simultaneously. We welcome the city’s involvement.”
Because of the volume of cuts the school district is looking at making, the ultimate in transparency is needed for all of the district’s stakeholders to feel confident in the decisions being made, said Lori Schorr, the mayor’s education adviser.
“The more transparent things are, the easier it is,” she said. “When you’re talking about cutting to this level, there should be maximum transparency because there is a lot of shared pain here.
But those programs aren’t going down without a fight. In addition to the court injunction prohibiting 1,500 of the layoffs, student, parent, and teacher groups have been rallying their elected officials to try and get Gov. Corbett’s budget priorities in a different order.
On a hot Thursday afternoon, elected officials, parents and students took to the streets to demand that the School District of Philadelphia restore funding for the district’s alternative education programs.
Ackerman herself has also done some creative thinking. Full-day kindergarten was among the programs put on the chopping block. It was restored after using Title I-Schoolwide project funds. But because she didn’t let Mayor Michael Nutter’s office know that she was doing this while he was working on City Council to provide more funding to the district through new taxes, something that could prove suicidal in an election year, a small rift formed.
But the most radical proposal is coming from Rep. Angel Cruz. He’s introduced a law that would restore control of the school district to the City of Philadelphia, taking it out of the state receivership it’s been in since 2003.
There is no word on how that proposal will work out.