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School Reform Commission Votes 4-1, Adopts Stripped Down Budget

By Mike DeNardo, Todd Quinones

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Amid jeers from protesters, the School Reform Commission approved a so-called “doomsday” budget that strips art, music and counselors from Philadelphia schools.

The SRC voted 4-1 to approve a bare-bones budget that Superintendent Wiliam Hite called “catastrophic.”

The $2.39 billion budget includes a $300 million budget shortfall.

It would force the elimination of extracurricular activities, sports, art, and music programs, as well as the elimination of assistant principals and counselors.

For three hours, parents, teachers and activists pleaded with the SRC to spare the programs and staff from the budget ax.

“I’m voting in favor of this budget only because it is legally required. I do not believe it is constitutionally adequate,” SRC member Wendell Pritchett said.

Commissioner Joe Dworetzky, attending by conference call, voted no, saying he wasn’t satisfied everything was done to identify savings.

“I will vote against this budget as presented,” said Dworetzky.

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said you can’t pass a budget based on the money you wished you had.

“Nineteen months ago we found a mess here that was the culmination of years of that happening,” Ramos said.

Local philanthropists are saying this would have a negative impact far beyond the classroom.

The Philadelphia region would suffer a cultural and economic loss if the school district adopts a budget that would eliminate art, music and athletics, says philanthropist Carole Haas Gravagno of the Stoneleigh Foundation.

“Taking music away from these kids – art, counselors, teachers’ aides, you know, it’s a recipe for disaster,” said Gravagno.

Gravagno called on residents in the city and the suburbs to urge their legislators and Philadelphia City Council to plug the $300 million school shortfall. She also read a statement from philanthropist H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest, saying “we cannot allow this destruction of the public education system.”

Parent Carolyn Boxmeyer was among a thousand protesters outside the meeting.

“Music and the arts are something you can do for your whole life. And it’s a tragedy. It’s just a travesty that they would cut these programs,” said Boxmeyer.

But facing a $300 million shortfall, that’s what the School Reform Commission did. The district had to adopt a balanced budget by the end of May.

“We had to move forward with a balanced budget based on monies that we know we have at the moment,” Hite said.

The school district is still aiming to raise $60 million from the city, $120 million from the state, and create $133 million in labor concessions, all to avoid having to implement the “doomsday” budget.

Hite is hoping the district can amend the budget if more city and state revenues materialize over the next month.

“I’m doing everything in my power to prevent this budget from becoming a reality,” said Hite.

District leaders as well as Mayor Michael Nutter will continue to press City Hall and Harrisburg for more money. The SRC is hoping the budget adopted Thursday night can still be amended before the cuts have to be made.

Without an influx of city or state cash, a spokesman says “thousands” of school district layoff notices would begin going out in early June.

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