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Philadelphia's public schools have lurched from one budget crisis to the next for years, and the district has run out of things to cut, add to this a decades-old fight with state lawmakers, who've balked at sending more money. NPR's Claudio Sanchez tells the story of how the nation's eighth-largest school district ended up teetering on the brink of insolvency.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Let's start with the fact that Philadelphia's public schools rely entirely on three basic sources of money, money the district does not control - $2.8 billion from the city, the state and the federal government.
MATT STANSKI: I equate that as to an allowance, like, you know, we're given an allowance and then we have to determine what to do with that allowance.
SANCHEZ: That's Matt Stanski, the district's chief financial officer. Stanski says the numbers today just don't add up - the district's contribution to teachers' pension fund, for example. Four years ago, it was only 5 percent of salary. Today, it's a whopping 21 percent.
STANSKI: It's just not sustainable and, yeah, it worries me tremendously.
SANCHEZ: Then there's the $727 million the district is required to give to charter schools, which operate a lot like a parallel school system in Philadelphia - another huge bite - health insurance. The district has been paying for all of it, to the tune of $117 million a year - more on that in a minute. So here's what all this boils down to, says Superintendent William Hite.
WILLIAM HITE: Years of reductions of revenue, years of spending beyond what the district was taking in - not just over the last two years, but for the past decade.
MARJORIE NEFF: Yes, welcome to the School District of Philadelphia.
SANCHEZ: Marjorie Neff is a former principal and one of five members of the School Reform Commission that took over the district in 2001 to stabilize its finances, which by all accounts, has not happened. Desperate to save money, the commission canceled its contract with the teachers union, demanding that teachers contribute to their health insurance premiums. Neff says the commission had no choice.
NEFF: It was either take this action or face another year of conditions like last year.
SANCHEZ: And just like last year, teachers have taken to the streets to protest.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
JERRY JORDAN: We're here to tell them that we're not taking it.
SANCHEZ: At a union rally in front of the school district offices recently, the message from Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan was clear.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
JORDAN: We will not allow them to accuse us of being greedy.
SANCHEZ: Meanwhile, the task of explaining all this to parents, without sounding hopeless, has fallen on school principals at meetings like this one at Central High School.
TIM MCKENNA: Parents come to me, students come to me. They're upset with the level of service they've been getting.
SANCHEZ: Tim McKenna is the principal of Central High. He's lost 12 teachers and five guidance counselors since 2012. He's had no money for new textbooks, and parents are having to buy paper for the school.
MCKENNA: Our Home and School Association just bought the school a pallet of paper - 40 cases of paper - that's going to keep us going into January and February.
SANCHEZ: Helen Gym has a son at Central High and has worked to organize parents across Philadelphia. She says publicly funded, privately run charter schools have reaped the greatest havoc on the budget.
HELEN GYM: You know, we're tired of charters. We're tired of takeover schools, all this kind of stuff. It's reckless. Our young people don't need that. They need stability. They need security. They need financial investments.
SANCHEZ: Of course they do, says James Lytle, an expert on urban school reform at the University of Pennsylvania. But he says it's unrealistic to think that the city, the state or the federal government are going to give schools more money anytime soon.
JAMES LYTLE: So if you want high quality schooling, how do you go about providing it without spending a lot more cash on it? And that's where charter schools have a real competitive advantage because they can target a lot more of their funding directly into classrooms.
SANCHEZ: Charters may or may not be performing better than traditional public schools, says Lytle, but they've successfully marketed themselves as more cost-effective at a time when local and state lawmakers are loathed to spend more money on education, especially on traditional public schools that many view as wasteful and ineffective. That's not something kids, parents or teachers at Central High are used to hearing. It's one of the top performing schools in Pennsylvania.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Tomorrow, come prepared with pencils and your calculators.
SANCHEZ: Today, kids are prepping for tests.
UNIDENTIFIED PEP SQUAD: (Chanting) And you know we've got soul.
SANCHEZ: The pep squad is doing its thing, and in room 245, clubs are meeting with their advisor, history teacher Karen Schromsky, to talk about - what else? - money.
KAREN SCHROMSKY: Guys, I know you want to make money for your clubs to run and so on and so forth, but you're selling things that you're not allowed to sell. I do not want to see Dunkin' Donuts.
SANCHEZ: Student clubs don't get a dime from the district, but Kamal Carter, 16, a member of the robotics team, says losing a dozen teachers because the district has no money is crazy. Classes have never been bigger.
KAMAL CARTER: Seventy kids in math class. So, like, most of the students were standing up during the lectures. I think it's algebra one.
SANCHEZ: English and Spanish classes at the beginning of the year also had 50 to 60 kids. Last week, Central High was able to replace a couple of teachers and hire another counselor. But with a projected 71-million-dollar deficit, the district and Philadelphians across the city are already bracing themselves for yet another round of cuts next school year. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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