‘Hold back … until we get a firm budget’

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

District Chief Business Officer Michael Masch told the Notebook Monday that the District has not yet made budget cuts or canceled programs – despite an anticipated massive shortfall in revenues coming from the state, which currently looks to be in the range of $150 million.

But he said that because of the uncertain state budget situation, the District has "held back on fully contracting all the slots and all the dollars for multiple pathways programs" – alternative programs for returning dropouts.

One such program – the YES Center for Media Arts and Education – tells the story differently. Gearing up for a November opening of a school serving 100 out-of-school youth that was approved in June, Youth Empowerment Services (YES) staff said in a press release Monday that they learned from the District on September 3 "that the school will not be funded."

"Philadelphia has said that kids who have dropped out are a priority, and here they are being left out again," Taylor Frome, YES executive director, told the Notebook. At least four other programs besides YES have been told they are not getting slots, Frome said, with more than 300 slots for returning dropouts eliminated.

Masch did not dispute the numbers, but said the District was simply holding back on creating slots that it doesn’t need at the start of the year, due to the fact that "we don’t know yet what we’re getting in terms of total state funding."

At the same time, Masch acknowledged that the "three-caucus" budget compromise that has emerged in Harrisburg spells trouble for Philadelphia schools. "If the deal becomes the budget, we’re at least $144 million down," Masch said.

He said that in the area of alternative education, the District was holding back on some contracts for "multiple pathways programs," but not for disciplinary schools because all the new slots for students created this year were for multiple pathways programs.

And he added that dropout recovery was not being singled out for punishment: "We’re holding back as we have held back in other areas." Masch cited "business systems modernization" as another area where budgeted funds are not being spent. A District budget presentation last spring identified (p. 55) $16 million in data systems improvements in areas like finance, employee and student records, and facilities maintenance.

"The question we’re asking is can we hedge our bets and hold back on spending until we get a firm budget," Masch said.

But in other areas of the Imagine 2014 strategic plan, the District has not held back, hiring teachers and counselors, expanding summer school, and revising the high school roster, making it unclear what else the District can take off the table once it knows the extent of the shortfall.

"I hope by the end of the month we’ll have a revised revenue projection," Masch said.

Unfortunately, those following the budget debate in Harrisburg say the main question still unresolved for Philadelphia schools is whether the damage will be limited to $144 million.