Cash-Strapped Philadelphia Schools Ask Parents To Fill Gaps

The Philadelphia school system was forced to cut millions of dollars from its budget, lay off hundreds of employees and shutter nearly two dozen schools to help close a billion dollar shortfall. Some principals are asking parents to "contribute" as much as $600 per student to help pay for basic supplies and the school superintendent threatened to delay the start of classes this month until the city kicked in $50 million to cover the minimum level of staffing.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Public school students in Philadelphia are scheduled to return to class Monday. They'll find a school district still reeling from a tough summer. Forced to cut millions of dollars from its budget, the district laid-off hundreds of employees and closed nearly two dozen schools. And even that wasn't enough. The district is still more than $300 million in the hole. At one point, it even warned that it may not have enough money to open schools on time. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Philadelphia's school district is the eighth largest in the country, with more than 135,000 students. That may sound like a lot but enrollment has been declining steadily. Funding is per pupil, so the district can't afford all the overhead expenses it once could. One of the schools closed last spring was Germantown High, north of downtown Philly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

BRADY: Another school nearby, Martin Luther King High School, is absorbing students from Germantown. One problem though, the two have been rivals for a long time. Dexter Gill is a senior at King.

DEXTER GILL: I think we'll be fighting, you know. I think we'll just be mixing this up. We'll be fighting, that's what I think.

BRADY: And why do you think that is?

GILL: Because we don't get along. Germantown and King don't get along.

BRADY: Administrators have a plan. They hope the combined football team will be an example for the rest of the school. Players have been practicing together over the summer. And senior Raheem Page says he hasn't seen many problems.

RAHEEM PAGE: I mean, we been getting along well out here so, I mean, I think that's going to transfer over into the school. We brothers, we family.

BRADY: At one point this summer, superintendent William Hite said he would have to delay the first day of school unless the city came up with $50 million to hire back laid-off support staff. The money came through just before a deadline. Now the issue is teacher pay. A contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers expired last weekend. The union is offering a wage freeze but the district says it needs pay cuts between 5 and 13 percent. That prompted the union to launch a public campaign targeting Philadelphia's Democratic mayor and Pennsylvania's Republican governor.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They failed to lead, failed our kids. Tell Mayor Nutter and Governor Corbett, stop cutting funding for our schools now because our kids are waiting.

BRADY: Governor Tom Corbett says the state is spending more than it ever has on public education, $9.75 billion this year. He wants union concessions before the state kicks in more money. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter launched his own campaign to counter the union ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: The PFT leadership is running false ads distorting my record on education funding and my support for our children.

BRADY: Nutter says the city has boosted what it spends on education and he's proposed new taxes to raise even more money. Battles like this already are happening in big city school districts across the country. And the number of cities facing problems like Philadelphia is expected to grow. Rick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

RICK HESS: Philadelphia is very much a canary in the coal mine as far as what we might be seeing in Chicago, Baltimore, in various New Jersey cities in the next two, three years.

BRADY: Philadelphia's budget problems have prompted some administrators to get creative. A principal at one elementary school sent out a letter asking parents to contribute $613 per student. The request was voluntary but given limited resources, the principal said he felt like he had few other options. At a back-to-school event, Sharon Samuels said she has four kids in Philadelphia schools. Her solution to the budget problem is simple.

SHARON SAMUELS: Take a pay cut.

BRADY: Teachers?

SAMUELS: Teachers, principals, administrators, take a pay cut.

BRADY: But other parents such as Tiffany Fox want teachers who are paid well.

TIFFANY FOX: They keep bleeding the teachers dry. They're talking about a 13.7 pay cut for them? How many times are they going to do that?

BRADY: Fox says this is about more than offering a good education. She says a successful school district could attract more residents and businesses to the city, too. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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