School district again faces massive ‘structural challenge’

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RIKARD LARMA/METRO

Seven months after city lawmakers approved a property-tax increase to help put the School District of Philadelphia on solid financial footing, elected officials questioned the district’s latest money woes.

The district said last week it needs to cut $61 million by the end of the school year and that it faces a “structural challenge” of $269 million next school year. Tom Knudsen, the former CEO of Philadelphia Gas Works, has been appointed chief recovery officer to oversee the cuts for the next six months.

Councilman Bill Green said the district has not adapted to better compete with charter schools.
“It’s got to seriously change the way it runs public schools and it hasn’t effectively done that,” he said. Green noted that in previous years school officials have either not answered Council’s questions or provided unsatisfactory answers, yet Council must approve funding.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz questioned why this year’s setback wasn’t noticed sooner, pointing to the Memorandum of Understanding signed last year by the district that was supposed to provide the city and state with unparalleled and “historic” oversight into its finances.

“Does that mean that the reports they were filing were untrue? Why should the city be surprised now?” Butkovitz asked. “I’d say that the burden is on the school district to show that the [current] numbers are true.”

Some Council members have said they would be hard-pressed to support more funding for the district yet again.

“We have to find other ways to come up with funding because “John and Jane Q. Public” can’t stand another tax increase,” Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said.

Council, district talked yesterday

Council members met privately with Tom Knudsen, the district’s new recovery officer, and SRC members Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun yesterday to get a briefing on the district’s plan.
   
School officials said they do not know exactly how they will close the $61 million shortfall by June, according to Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who chairs the Council’s education committee.
   
“What happens from here we don’t know, but we do feel that Pedro and Feather and Tom are engaged, intelligent and know what they’re talking about,” Blackwell said. “I feel certain they’re working on [a plan] and we’re going to have all the dialogue we want to have. We came out feeling hopeful.”


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