After threatening to delay the start of the school year earlier this month unless the city guaranteed a $50 million infusion, superintendent of Philadelphia’s school district William R. Hite, Jr. appears to have won the battle, as Mayor Michael Nutter announced that the city will borrow the necessary funds to get the schools funded and open on time. The last minute save will ensure schools will open as scheduled, but this disaster-that-wasn’t is unlikely to be the end of the long-running saga of the chronically over-budget district which has been operating in crisis mode since the beginning of this year.
According to Martha Woodall and Troy Graham of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Hite’s announcement of the opening delay earlier this week exposed the conflict between Mayor Michael Nutter and some members of the City Council over the terms offered by the state in exchange for bailing out the insolvent district. Darrell L. Clarke, the Council president, had previously called for rejection of the bailout deal, instead proposing paying $50 million to the district from city coffers in exchange for leases to unused school buildings.
Nutter and others had backed a state plan that called for the city to borrow $50 million against future collections of the city’s extra 1 percent sales tax, which was set to expire next June, and turn the money over to the schools.
Nutter called Hite’s comments “one of the most chilling statements that I’ve ever heard a school leader . . . make.”
Hite’s stunning announcement comes as the district continues to grapple with a deficit of more than $270 million. Delaying the opening of school would affect 136,000 students and their families.
“I want to be clear about why the $50 million matters now,” Hite said, adding that the amount would allow the district “to tell parents that when their child is walking through the hallways, eating lunch, or at recess, an adult will be supervising them. It allows us to tell parents that counselors will be available to serve children in our largest and neediest schools, and that an assistant principal will be on hand to resolve any disciplinary issues that keep children from learning.”
More than 4,000 district employees have received pink slips this year as the district tries to find a solution to its extensive budget problems. As a result, although each Philadelphia school still has some administrative employees and teachers to staff all its classrooms, almost every single one has lost most of its support staff such as counselors, assistant principals and noontime aides.
Hite argued that the $50 million is the minimum the district needs to allow schools to operate at all.
Dan Stamm of the Associated Press reports that Nutter’s announcement this Thursday came a day before the deadline imposed by Hite for the funding guarantee. The money will be used to recall enough school staff to ensure that schools will operate safely when they open their doors on September 9th.
The mayor’s plan includes repaying the loan from money generated through the one-percent extra sale tax extension. City Council still must sign off on that plan.
“If Council approves a sales tax bill consistent with what’s been approved in Harrisburg, or any other legislation, it will give the City access to $15 million a year to repay the borrowing,” Nutter said.