The $94 million lifesaver the School District of Philadelphia expected from the city through the controversial Actual Valuation Initiative rapidly deteriorated into a $40 million kick-in, as City Council members decided last week, via voice vote, to delay AVI until next year, at the earliest.
Now, the $54-million-question becomes, where will the district find the money to cover what it won’t receive from the city?
“The bottom line is, the district needs $94 million,” said School District of Philadelphia Spokesman Fernando Gallard. “That is a figure that will help us maintain budgets in our schools as they are now, which are at bare-bone budgets.”
Thomas Knudsen, the district’s Chief Recovery Officer and author of the district’s massive, five-year reorganization blueprint, previously intimated that if the district didn’t get the $94 million in AVI, then its budget will reflect that. Likewise, Knudsen and SRC officials repeatedly claimed that there simply isn’t anything left to cut, and operations district-wide are running bare-bone staffs.
In other words, the budget for the 2012/2013 school year reflected a $218 million deficit, inclusive of the $94 million from AVI; now, that deficit will at least be in the $268 million range. Knudsen previously hinted at catastrophic ramifications for the school district if it did not receive the full $94 million.
City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown — a former teacher and vice-president of Council’s education committee — wished more could have been done, but ultimately goes with the decision made by her peers.
“Throughout this process, and really since I have started in City Council, I have fought for increased funding for our schools. I would like to see more going to our students through AVI but ultimately it is a collective decision, and collectively we arrived at a lower number,” Brown said. “I understand the hesitancy to increase funding even further locally because we are seeing little to nothing from the State Capitol recently. Honestly, that is where we need to see the investment coming from, but we have learned regretfully as a legislative body that we cannot hold our breath for the Governor in Harrisburg."
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell – who chairs Council’s education committee and, like Brown, is herself a former public school teacher — was steadfast, not only about Council’s recent AVI decision by what she believes is the district’s appalling mismanagement; that way Blackwell sees it, it’s unconscionable for the district to repeatedly ask for money, only to repeatedly blow it.
“Even though I’m the chair of the education committee, I have a real problem with raising taxes without any accountability. School district officials haven’t told us how they will keep this money safe nor told us how it will affect learning,” Blackwell said. “I don’t like that only the seniors have summer school and I don’t like that they are closing all of these schools.
“They ask for all this money, but are laying off staff,” Blackwell continued. “So I’m not committed to vote for any of these taxes.”
Everyone from nurses to school security and non-teaching assistants to janitors were laid off by the district as it imposed severe austerity measures to close the multi-million budget gap; Blackwell said that the district’s browbeating of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers only exemplifies its mismanagement style.
“Everyone says 'just do it,' and it sounds good, but it’s more important to do the right thing,” Blackwell said, noting that it’s still possible these tax measures will fail when the recall vote is held later this week. “My first obligation is to the people who elect me, and the people who elect me tell me they can’t afford it.
“Then the SRC said they wanted the PFT to give back $130 million,” Blackwell continued. “So they want to control collective bargaining as well. The union is the union, and the SRC has to deal with the people they hired.”
Blackwell confirmed the school district will receive about $40 million — $20 million from a new real estate tax and a $20 through a new Usage and Occupy business tax.
Although it appears Council favored those measures last week, Blackwell said the final vote on that is to come this week, and Blackwell still has misgivings about the new real estate tax, which she says many of her constituents simply cannot afford.
“I still have a problem with the majority of taxes in Mantua going up,” Blackwell said of the rising West Philadelphia neighborhood that includes a broad mix of university dwellings and low and mixed-income residents. “I’m not prepared to tell people who can’t afford it [to pay more taxes] when we don’t have assurances things will get better.
“It’s a real mess with no clarity, and I think people have a right to know how their hard-earned dollars are being spent.”
Blackwell also voiced outrage that the tax would have an adverse effect on the Mantua community, where a 2 percent real estate tax hike would add about a $1,000 in new taxes per household.
“It’s nice to go along with people in charge who say and act like [the new tax] is what we need, but if you’ve been around enough and are professional enough, you ask how [the SRC] is going to use the money. And if I can’t get hard and fast answers, I will not vote to raise any taxes,” Blackwell said. “I owe the electorate and the people that elected me that. And how can they pick Mantua, where we fought gentrification all of our lives? And now they want to raise taxes by at least $1,000 now, all of a sudden, under my watch? They can do it, but not with my vote.”
Gallard said the SRC remains hopeful that Council ultimately decides to bail out the district.
“We’ve mentioned before that we’ve built a [financial] firewall around our schools, and that the goal was not to go back to the schools and ask them to make further difficult decisions in their budget,” Gallard said. “We don’t want to go back. We’re hoping that in the next few days, City Council will provide us with the $94 million that we need, and we’re working with the mayor and hoping for the best at this point.
“They still have to do a final vote on this, so the time between when it was voted out of committee and the time they vote [as a body], there will be better news for students.”