Philadelphia: School District Crisis Impacts Our Children

Philadelphia: School District Crisis Impacts Our Children

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By Anthony Williams for the Philadelphia Tribune

It’s no secret that the School District of Philadelphia is populated largely by black and brown students. Nor is it a secret that the district is running high deficits and in need of a cash infusion from the city and state, as well as some givebacks from its unions, in order to make the 2013-14 school year a reality for our children. But too many of us are acting like it is a secret.

We’re only whispering about this, at best. We should be shouting.

If these dollars don’t come to the district – and soon – we may face the real prospect of not seeing school doors open in any meaningful way this fall. If that sounds scary, it should. No one I know wants Philadelphia to be have the distinction of having the largest U.S. school district to declare bankruptcy.

Forget any shame that would bring upon us collectively, as a world-class city. Focus on what kind of disruption that will mean for the lives of our children and our families across this city.

Even normal short-term borrowing the district does, such as summer bridge loans that keep things operating until the fall tax receipts come in, will come at near usury rates, if at all unless the city, state and unions make good on the district’s ask.

By no means is that ask a light one. We’re talking about an additional $60 million from the city, $120 million from the state and concerted contract adjustments among the unions. As someone who has long criticized the concept of throwing money at a problem — namely the district – this isn’t an easy choice. But it’s our only one right now.

We don’t have a replacement plan or even a real contingency plan at this point. That means facing the possibility that buildings will close in mid-July, when the district runs out of money. Ditto the potential chaos in September, when the year is supposed to begin for nearly a quarter of a million children in neighborhood, magnet and charter schools. No one wants to guess if staff, teachers or administrators would stick around if they had to go months without pay. Not too many people I know could afford that.

And we couldn’t look to independent or parochial schools for refuge. Even if every family miraculously conjured the tuition costs, there aren’t enough seats to absorb all of our public school students.

This is the reality we’re facing, where $1 for every $10 in the district budget today goes to pay debt service. Even if Wall Street decides to extend the district more credit — and that’s a big if without the aforementioned help from the city, state and unions — that debt ratio could grow to $1 for every $8 in the budget. For the record, that money does not go toward instruction or maintenance. It goes to the bill collector, not our kids. If you thought this school year was bad, it would be just a preview.

But we can do better. Should do better.

If you agree, start ringing the phone lines, sending the FAXes and piling on the email. The governor, the mayor, City Council, state representatives, and even state senators like me need to hear from you. It’s no long-term fix, but giving the district these dollars is what we have to do in a difficult situation.

For our kids.

Anthony Hardy Williams serves as Pennsylvania State Senator for the 8th District, encompassing Philadelphia and Delaware counties. Follow him on Twitter @SenTonyWilliams.

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