Dear Commons Community,
The financial problems in Philadelphia are so severe that the city agreed yesterday to borrow $50 million just to be able to open schools on time. Even with that money, schools will open Sept. 9 with a minimum of staffing and sharply curtailed extracurricular activities and other programs.
“Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. had been threatening to delay opening schools if the city did not come through with the $50 million, which he said was necessary to provide the minimum staffing needed for the basic safety of the district’s 136,000 students. In June, the district closed 24 schools and laid off 3,783 employees, including 127 assistant principals, 646 teachers and more than 1,200 aides, leaving no one even to answer phones.
For a number of years, Mayor Michael A. Nutter and the City Council have been working, with some success and a fair amount of taxpayer pain, to shore up the city’s finances, which have been troubled by mounting debt, a shrinking tax base and unfunded pension and health care obligations to retirees. But the school district, supported by the same weary municipal taxpayers, though under the control of a state reform commission for more than a decade, had been largely ignored.
While the city’s own bond rating has been raised, to its highest level in 30 years, the school district’s credit has been downgraded to junk, with warnings that more downgrades may come…
Even after the June staff cuts, the district had an estimated $304 million deficit for the coming year — at a time when it is already paying nearly that amount, $280 million, to service its existing debt each year. Mayor Nutter that he would take out general obligation bonds to come up with the $50 million for the schools risks the city’s own hard-won credit rating by taking on medium-term debt to pay for day-to-day operations — a practice that is widely seen by municipal analysts as a sign of desperation.
The unusual situation stems from a combination of politics and long-term structural problems. Decades of dwindling population and resources had already greatly weakened the schools, but now the Republican-controlled state government has drastically cut aid to the district. This move struck some in the Democratic-controlled city as punitive, though Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has said the statewide cuts in education had nothing to do with party politics but with the simple need to do something about the state’s own poor finances. Federal aid to the district has also been chopped.”
The Philadelphia School District is an anomaly — unlike many school districts across the country, it has no elected board of education, and never has, at least in modern memory. That means the normal political dynamics found in other places with troubled schools cannot play out there. The School District of Philadelphia is governed by a five-member School Reform Commission (SRC), established in December 2001, when oversight of the School District shifted to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Governor of Pennsylvania appoints three of the SRC members, while the Mayor of Philadelphia appoints two members of the commission.