Payroll Woes: Is the Philadelphia School District the Next Chester Upland?

by Christopher Paslay

The Chester Upland School District recently ran out of money and can no longer pay its teachers.  At the latest SRC meeting, Feather Houstoun admits that this summer, the Philadelphia School District may not ‘be able to pay people in July for work they did in June.’    

In three years, the Philadelphia School District blew through a sick amount of money.  A sick amount.  From September of 2008 to June of 2011—the Ackerman-Archie years—the District spent in excess of $9 billion dollars.  The craziest part is, the more money they spent, the less they seemed to have to show for it. 

In the 2008-09 school year, with 169,000 students enrolled in District schools, the District had an operating budget of approximately $2.79 billion.  Things weren’t perfect but they were stable.  Athletic programs were fully funded, as were extracurricular clubs and after school activities.  Schools had fulltime nurses, photocopiers were supplied with paper, and most importantly, people who showed up for work were able to get paid. 

In the 2009-10 school year, with the help of federal stimulus money, the District’s budget increased to over $3 billion.  Student enrollment dropped to 165,000.  The following school year, in 2010-2011, the budget jumped again—to $3.25 billion.  Student enrollment sank to just under 160,000. 

In 2011-12—the current school year—things came full circle: the operating budget has dropped back to what it was in 2008-09, which is a cool $2.77 billion.  Of course, there are now only 146,000 students enrolled in District schools.  And now, somehow, after all that extra money came into the District during those zany stimulus years—a half a billion dollars of it!—the District is flat broke.  Busted.  Down and out. 

Many athletic programs have been shut down.  After school clubs have been axed.  School nurses have been cut.  Teachers, NTAs, and counselors have been laid off.  In many schools (like mine), teachers have to buy their own paper.  And now, according to the recent comments made by Feather Houstoun at the latest School Reform Commission meeting, the District may have a hard time paying people; they need to cut another $61 million by June.                        

“We’re basically going to limp through May and June,” Houstoun said at the meeting. “We’ll cover payroll. We’ll cover debt service because we absolutely have to. But we’re going to have to have such a pile up of cash deficit that we’re basically not going to be able to pay people in July for work they did in June. If we haven’t fixed this and have a credible plan for next year and the next year, we may not even be able to go to credit markets.” (Click here to read Inquirer Reporter Kristen Graham’s blog of the meeting).    

Not be able to pay people in July for work they did in June?  Which people are we talking about here?  Teachers?  Principals?  Who? 

Although it’s not the current administration’s mess, it really makes you wonder what in the world was going on down at 440 N. Broad for the past three years.  Where in the world did all that money go, for heaven’s sake?  But more importantly, when and how is the District finally going to have the wherewithal to get their finances back in order and put a stop to all the bleeding?

4 thoughts on “Payroll Woes: Is the Philadelphia School District the Next Chester Upland?

  1. There are currently 29 Republican governors, 20 Democratic and one Independent. The current wave from the Republican governors is to weaken unions, add vouchers, cut spending and support charters. (Corbett, Christie to name just two) As far as I am concerned the handwriting in on the wall- public education as we now know it is changing. Unless teachers and unions and school boards wake up to the new realities of funding we may indeed see the demise of the School District of Philadelphia as it currently functions. You will be buying more than paper in the near future. Poor urban school districts will go first. Not sure if the suburban school districts will feel such budget constraints or not since they have healthy property tax bases. One solution is to seek a different way to fund all public schools. Relying on property tax hurts urban school children and other poor districts( Chester Upland). And state funding is only going to grow less and less.

    I have no idea where all this will lead but most likely urban school children will be hurt the most.


    • Hi Kathy,

      Public education is without a doubt changing; there is clearly a national movement to charterize schools, and this will ultimately resegregate schools, and leave behind the bottom third of students. However, this still doesn’t excuse the blatent wasteful mismanagement of school districts like Philadelphia; Districts like Philly and Chester don’t have a money problem–they have breakdowns in management, community, culture, and are faced with inside corruption. The money never trickles down to the students!

      Christopher Paslay

  2. I agree, mismanagement is a big part of the problem. Just look at the money the SRC gave Ms. Ackerman. There are too many administrators. I do think however there is a national movement by Republican governors to use the current financial situation to dismantle unions and get voucher legislation passed and many other changes. This may turn out to be a good thing, who knows at this point in time. But change is coming whether we like it or not. I just think we should try to prepare, be pro-active and control some of that change. Teachers need to let their voices be heard. We need to figure out ways to improve the schools so the public is not screaming for change but is instead wanting to go to our schools. I have been supporting changing our current reading instruction for years. So far I have to yet to convince any teacher to take a hard look at the current reading instruction we use which produces poor results for many children in many schools. Instruction in urban schools is one area that really needs to be examined. Teachers could do this. There is nothing better than having high test scores to quiet the opposition.

  3. You both are correct. However, the issue of charter schools hasn’t been mentioned. There are currently 85 charter schools in Philadelphia. The school district is required to fund those schools regardless of whether the charter school students ever attended our schools. The evidence doesn’t support the worth of these schools, but the district continues to approve additional requests.

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