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Doomsday cuts

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission last week adopted a “Doomsday Budget” that is a blueprint for what would happen to the city’s public schools in the fall if the school district does not get additional money.

Art classes and music programs would be thrown onto the scrap heap. Athletics and after-school programs would be canceled. Say goodbye, too, to assistant principals, guidance counselors, secretaries and the school aides who monitor lunch rooms.

Say hello to chaos.

Now, nobody expects this really to happen. Instead, the district’s $2.4 billion budget for 2013–2014 is likely to be amended as new funding eases at least some of the projected $304 million shortfall. The city, state and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers are all being asked to come to the party and save the school district from catastrophic cuts.

The city is being asked to pony up $60 million in new funds, and the state is being asked for twice that amount. Another $100 million would come from givebacks from the teachers’ union.

We suspect the SRC adopted this unrealistic budget for two reasons — to meet its fiduciary obligation and to spur elected officials into action. But the timing couldn’t be worse. City Council is already up to its elbows in one of the most important and contentious changes in years, converting to a new property tax assessment system. How nimble will Council be in sorting out the school district’s budget mess at the same time?

There’s also no doubt the state and teachers’ union will be a hard sell.

We already are experiencing a sequestration at the federal level. The sequester, you’ll recall, was hatched during the debt ceiling compromise in 2011. The sequester was supposed to be so unpalatable that it would never happen. But it did, taking effect on March 1. By the end of September, the federal government will cut $85 billion in spending.

The impact of these across-the-board cuts are already being felt in some quarters and will only grow.

Everyone seems to think the “Doomsday Budget” for city schools is just a stalking horse for a much more realistic and robust budget that will keep our schools intact. The new money will flow. We hope that’s so, but now that we have had a taste of the federal sequester, we wonder how smart it is to play Russian Roulette with our city schools. ••

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