PHILADELPHIA — The nearly broke Philadelphia schools will open on schedule next month thanks to $50 million in emergency aid.
But will they be worth going to?
That's the question parents are asking as the district begins to rehire about 1,000 pink-slipped workers, from assistant principals to guidance counselors.
Many say the cash infusion is a paltry bandage on a district hemorrhaging red ink, and that the buildings will simply be shells – without sufficient resources or staff to offer students a safe and adequate learning environment. About 2,500 workers remain laid off.
"We're all just kind of stunned this could be happening in modern time, that a government would not choose to fund education," said Lisa Criniti-Ciervo, who has two children in the district. "We're all just kind of appalled."
Philadelphia is one of the nation's largest districts, serving more than 190,000 traditional and charter school students. For several months, it has been working to close a $304 million deficit caused in part by rising labor costs, debt service and charter school growth.
The crisis has led to bitter feuds in City Hall and the state capital over possible new revenue sources for the schools, which have endured repeated financial catastrophes despite being under state oversight since 2001. It's also resulted in calls for an education funding formula. Pennsylvania is one of three states without one.
The district's latest summer of turmoil began weeks ago when pink slips went out to 3,800 workers, leaving schools staffed only by principals and teachers – no secretaries, counselors or cafeteria aides.
Officials also cut athletics, music and extracurricular activities, even as they pleaded for help by asking for $60 million from the city, $120 million from the state and $133 million in union givebacks.
In July, the district recouped $33 million from various revenue, allowing the restoration of one secretary per school, plus sports programs and music teachers – for the fall semester only.
State lawmakers then crafted a bailout package, but little has come of it. The state refuses to release $45 million in earmarked aid until Philadelphia teachers agree to significant monetary concessions and work rule changes. Their union contract expires Aug. 31.
The state plan also gives permission for the city to direct part of its sales tax proceeds to the schools. Some City Council members, though, want a portion of the money for the city's underfunded pension system. That stalemate continues.
Then last week, Superintendent William Hite threatened to delay the Sept. 9 start of classes if local or state leaders did not promise $50 million by Friday. Without those funds, he said, "we cannot open functional schools, run them responsibly or provide a quality education to students."
The monetary commitment came Thursday, but it's still unclear what form the $50 million will take. Mayor Michael Nutter says the city will borrow the funds, but council members say they won't approve such a transaction. They want the cash to come from the sale of school property.
Still, the pledge means Greenfield Elementary principal Dan Lazar is getting back a much-needed counselor for his 600 students. He knows some of his peers at smaller buildings aren't as lucky – and yet Lazar said he still needs much, much more. His school is one of several seeking direct donations from parents to offset the budget cuts.
"I've been working with less for a while, but this is much less than I've worked with in the past," he said Friday. "So it's going to be an interesting year."
Follow Kathy Matheson at http://www.twitter.com/kmatheson