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?