Philadelphia schools chief says district can't cut anymore as he seeks more money from state

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — The superintendent of Philadelphia's public schools said Monday that the district, Pennsylvania's largest, cannot cut anymore services or personnel, as he lobbies state lawmakers for more aid to pull the district out of a persistent deficit.

William Hite said the state has not adequately funded public education in its largest school district. Funding cuts under former Gov. Tom Corbett has meant that the district is receiving less state aid than it got four years ago to educate 200,000 students. Stopgaps and a new cigarette tax have helped while the district shed about one in three employees and closed about one in eight school buildings.

But Hite also said he is optimistic about the possibility of getting more state help, partly because Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's budget would deliver another $160 million to Philadelphia schools and partly because education funding is a top issue.

"I'm optimistic because at least we're having conversations about that," Hite told reporters after speaking at the Pennsylvania Press Club in Harrisburg. "I'm also optimistic because now many people are talking about educational funding just across the commonwealth. The last election was all about that, in my opinion."

The $160 million proposed by Wolf for Philadelphia would give the city district a 14 percent increase to $1.3 billion, among the biggest percentage increases in aid of any school district in the state.

In a study published in July, Rutgers University education professor Bruce D. Baker concluded that Philadelphia is persistently the most underfunded major urban district in the country, with Chicago a close second.

Baker also concluded that, among all states, Pennsylvania and Illinois harbor the worst inequalities in school finance.

Still, however, state government is facing a massive deficit next year, and Republicans who control the Legislature are making no commitments to a tax increase. Meanwhile, the Basic Education Funding Commission set up by lawmakers to develop a fairer system of distributing state aid may or may not help Philadelphia.

The commission's deadline to issue a proposal is in early June.

"People are asking me prematurely what the formula is going to be and I don't know at this point because it's not done," said Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, a commission co-chairman. "But what I can tell you is it's going to be fair for everybody."

The current formula is driven by the Legislature's political considerations and lawmakers will not be bound by the commission's recommendations.

A formula that takes into account student needs and concentrations of poverty will help Philadelphia, Hite said. Meanwhile, cuts in the district have blunted the opportunities and help available to children, such as taking advanced placement courses, working in a science lab, consulting with counselors and seeing a nurse, he added.

"What are we going to do now? Put 50 kids in a class?" Hite questioned. "There's nothing else to cut."

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