City Council: School District Paints Dire Budget Picture

School District Budget Hearing

Board of Education President Reginald Streater began the Board’s testimony by walking council through the district’s key issues in their fiscal year 2024 budget, which includes addressing gun violence, adequate and equitable funding, investing in aging facilities, and recruiting and retaining staff.

Streater said 26 students have been killed by gun violence this school year and called for a more coordinated response regarding times of day students are traveling to and from school, providing safe places for students before and after school and on weekends and during the summer, caring safety zones around schools, and expanding mental health services for students and families affected by trauma.

Board Vice President Mallory Fix-Lopez focused her testimony on school district funding, long a challenging issue for the district despite a recent Superior Court decision that ruled the state funding formula was unconstitutional.

Fix-Lopez said the district would need an additional $1.14 billion to “meet the educational needs of students,” which would include an additional $318 million from the city. Fix-Lopez also reiterated the need for capital improvements, which likely exceed a total of $7.8 billion for the district’s 300 buildings. The 215 schools in the district have an average age of 73 years old, with the oldest building over 120 years old.

Each year, the total needed for capital repairs grows by $200 million.

In his testimony, Superintendent Tony Watlington said the district’s fiscal year 2024 budget goals were strengthening school safety, working with parents and the community, and accelerating academic achievement.

Regarding school safety, Watlington said the district planned to focus on physical safety, social and emotional safety, and environmental safety.

With academic achievement always a key concern, Watlington laid out broad goals.

“We intend to accelerate academic achievement by investing in research-based standards-aligned core curriculum and high-impact tutoring with priority on kindergarten readiness,” Watlington said.

While staffing has been a concern throughout the city, Watlington had more positive news regarding district vacancies.

“School principal positions are 99.5% staffed with just one vacancy district-wide,” Watlington said. “At present, teacher positions are 98.5% filled with an average vacancy of one (teacher) per school.”

Watlington addressed district-wide environmental issues, testifying that there are currently 295 district buildings that contain “asbestos-containing materials.” Complicating matters are incomplete and/or inaccurate records regarding asbestos testing in district buildings. Watlington said the district has a new “enhanced inspection procedure” for identifying asbestos remediation.

Regarding specific financial matters, district Chief Financial Officer Michael Herbstman explained that nearly 88% of district revenue comes from city and state funding. When the American Recovery Plan funds are spent down at the end of 2024, that figure jumps to 99%.

Most alarmingly, Herbstman said the district will hit a “fiscal cliff” in 2025, beginning with a deficit of over $215 million in fiscal year 2025 that will grow to over $494 million by 2028. By 2028, the district’s fund balance will be in the red by $875 million.

In order to fund the district at an adequate level and stave off the potential deficits, the district said it would require an additional $4976 per student in funding, which amounts to $318 million in city funds and over $823 million in state funds.

Gauthier Passes Preservation Bills

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier’s legislation preserving affordable housing in Philadelphia passed Thursday, May 4th, 2023.

The two pieces of legislation, Bills Nos. 221017 and 221018, passed council unanimously. The bills are part of Gauthier’s People’s Preservation Package.

Bill No. 221017 makes changes to the city code regarding how affordable housing changes hands in the city. This has become a particularly significant issue, as the lease agreement on the University City Townhomes recently expired, causing hundreds of families to find new living accommodations. Other affordable housing developments around the city become eligible to be sold in the near future.

Bill No. 221018 requires the city to promulgate a quarterly directory of affordable housing properties. The directory can also keep track of expiring affordable housing units.

Johnson Call for Education Hearing

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson introduced a resolution calling on the Committee on Education “to hold hearings to evaluate existing support services for Early Childhood Education and Pre-K Centers and Providers and to examine the role of high-quality Early Childhood Education and Pre-K opportunities in addressing childhood poverty and promoting the future academic success of children in Philadelphia.”

The resolution states Philadephia has over 100,000 children under the age of five, and acknowledges the role Early Childhood Education (ECE) and Pre-Kindergartner programs in alleviating poverty.

ECE and Pre-K programs also play a crucial role in other areas, such as nutrition and healthcare, as many programs offer breakfast and lunch options and sometimes provide screenings for common childhood ailments.

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