- Associated Press - Friday, August 15, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The cash-strapped city school district will cut another $32 million in services to free up enough money to start classes on time, but massive layoffs still loom if state lawmakers don’t approve a cigarette tax, officials said Friday.

Thousands of high school students won’t get transportation to school, buildings will be cleaned less frequently and school police officer vacancies will go unfilled as part of the district’s effort to close an $81 million shortfall before the first bell rings Sept. 8.

Superintendent William Hite called the reductions “unbelievably tough” decisions but also the “least harmful” for students and families. Officials had been weighing options such as a delayed start, a shortened school year or large numbers of pink slips.

“It is incredibly frustrating,” Hite said at a news conference. “I would much rather be talking about ways we can spend investments.”

The other $49 million is expected to come from a $2-per-pack cigarette tax that legislators will consider when they reconvene from their annual break on Sept. 15. Squabbling within the Legislature’s GOP majority prevented it from being passed earlier in the summer.

The district, one of the nation’s largest with about 200,000 traditional and charter school students, has cut 5,000 jobs and closed more than 30 schools over the past few years. But it struggles with a structural deficit caused by rising pension and health care costs and charter school payments.

“We cannot cut our way to a quality education,” said Bill Green, chairman of the state-run School Reform Commission, which oversees the district.

Green stressed that the $81 million only puts the district back to where it was last year - a $2.6 billion budget that left dozens of schools without full-time counselors and nurses. Officials say they need $224 million more to make transformative changes in the academically troubled system.

District leaders called on the teachers union for benefits concessions on a par with those made by administrators and other workers. Teachers, who currently pay nothing toward their health care, have been working without a contract for more than a year.

Union president Jerry Jordan said his members have had no raises for three years and spend thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for basic school supplies. The union proposed “tens of millions of dollars” in health care savings that the district rejected, though he declined to provide specifics.

To prevent future budget crises, school advocates have asked state lawmakers to create an equitable funding formula for education and for new rules to curb charter school growth. Some support an extraction tax on natural gas drilling to fund schools; Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state without such a tax.

“Another year of bare bones services that leave our students at risk and falling further and further behind is not acceptable,” the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools said in a statement.

Chanel Smith, a rising junior at Edison High School, said students are always told they can succeed if they work hard. But Edison lacks many resources, she said, noting the building’s old textbooks, no extracurricular activities and overcrowded classrooms.

“If you don’t give us the tools, what do you expect us to do?” Smith said.


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