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Philadelphia public schools will open on time

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA — After a tense week of wondering whether the city's financially struggling public schools would be able to open on time next month, the district finally has an answer: Yes.

With the city's promise Thursday of $50 million in emergency funds, education officials began hiring back about 1,000 pink-slipped employees: from assistant principals to lunchtime aides.

But what will the schools look like?

Many parents say the cash infusion is barely a bandage on a district hemorrhaging red ink, and that the buildings will simply be shells — without sufficient resources or staffing to offer students a safe and adequate learning environment. About 2,500 workers remain laid off.

Philadelphia is one of the nation's largest districts, serving more than 190,000 traditional and charter school students. For several months, it has been working to close a $304 million deficit caused in part by rising labor costs, debt service and charter school growth.

The crisis has led to bitter feuds in City Hall and Harrisburg over possible new revenue sources for the schools, which have endured repeated financial catastrophes despite being under state oversight since 2001. It's also resulted in calls for an education funding formula, since Pennsylvania is one of three states without one.

The district's rocky summer began weeks ago when pink slips went out to 3,800 workers, leaving schools staffed only by principals and teachers — no secretaries, counselors or cafeteria aides. Officials also cut athletics, music and extracurricular activities even as they pleaded for help, asking for $60 million from the city, $120 million from the state and $133 million in union givebacks.

In July, the district recouped $33 million in various revenue, allowing the restoration of one secretary per school, plus sports programs and music teachers — for the fall semester only.

State lawmakers then crafted a bailout package, but little has come of it. The state refuses to release $45 million in promised aid until Philadelphia teachers agree to significant monetary concessions and work rule changes. Their union contract expires Aug. 31.

The state plan also gives permission for the city to direct sales tax proceeds to the schools. Some City Council members, though, want a portion of the money for the city's underfunded pension system. That stalemate continues.

Then last week, Superintendent William Hite threatened to delay the Sept. 9 start of classes if local or state leaders did not promise $50 million by Friday. Without those funds, he said, “we cannot open functional schools, run them responsibly or provide a quality education to students.”

The monetary commitment came Thursday, but it's still unclear what form the $50 million will take. Mayor Michael Nutter says the city will borrow the funds, but council members say they won't approve such a transaction. They want the cash to come from the sale of school property.

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