City Council members seem to want to work with the School District of Philadelphia to give it additional funds it's requesting for the 2011-12 school year.
Councilman Wilson Goode was the body's first member to say he supports giving the district more money. "Let me start with the first question," he said. "How much money do you want?"
The chamber, which was filled with district employees, administrators and students—many of whom held signs that said things like "I Need Education" and "We Care, Why Don't You?"—erupted in applause when people heard that.
District officials like Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery and others were on hand in City Hall Tuesday to testify in front of City Council, to present this district's budget for the next fiscal year and to, in the end, ask for more money.
Masch outlined how much money the district would need to restore certain controversial cuts. To keep full-day kindergarten intact, he said, the district will need an additional $25 million. It would need $36.5 million to restore buses for students in grades 1 through 6 and would require $23.4 million to keep SEPTA's TransPass system in effect for students in grades 7 through 12.
All in all, Masch said, the district has identified $180 million in priority cuts that it would like to restore.
"We would certainly welcome the council's support to provide us at least 50 to 75 percent (of the $180 million) if it is possible for you and the mayor to put together the votes," Masch told Goode at the hearing, after Goode asked him whether district officials would make a direct request for more funding.
Goode said he supported giving the district money but wanted to make sure any money the city gives to the district is used for a specific purpose.
Goode talked about how City Council had given the district $60 million in additional funding every year since 2007-08. He pressed Masch on how the district has used those funds, and when Masch told him that the money can be used in an unrestricted fashion, Goode pounced.
"We're not going to do business that way this year," Goode said, to further applause.
The district is asking for more money from the city because of unprecedented cuts to its budget proposed at the state level that would shrink its funding to 2008 levels.
The state would reduce its funding to the district next school year by $292 million.
Councilman Darrell Clarke echoed Goode's line of questioning, asking if there were any way the district could be legally obligated to earmark certain funds for a certain purpose, like full-day kindergarten.
The much-debated proposal to make kindergarten a half-day program throughout the district was one of the more discussed matters during the hearing. Ackerman told council members that cutting the program would severely affect Philadelphia children down the road.
"Down the line, they will pay for the lack of those quality programs and service," Ackerman said. "We know that, academically, they are going to suffer."
So while Clarke told district officials that he would consider providing more funding to the district, he said he has "had frustration" with the way City Council's money has been spent by the school system in the past.
"Is there a way to assure that's where the money will go?" Clarke asked.
Ackerman said that she wasn't entirely sure whether the district had legal recourse to do that, but said she knew that in the Pittsburgh school system, district officials do have the opportunity to earmark funds in a way similar to what Clarke would want. And she said she hoped the same could hold true in Philadelphia, even if the two school districts are run differently. (Philadelphia's school system is run by the five-member School Reform Commission, which has members appointed by both the state and the city.)
The district's cousel, Michael A. Davis, took the stand to tell Clarke that he didn't know the specific answer to that. He did say, however, that he would try to find a way to do what council members wanted.
"I would like the opportunity to look into ways and structures that we could come up with working with city council in order to ensure that your expectations are carried out," Davis said.
Council members also asked district officials about a variety of other issues, including truancy, school violence and arts programs.
Testimony in the hearing will continue throughout the afternoon. Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller will ask questions during the later portion of the hearing.