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Hornbeck, Judge Reach Truce in Spending Battle

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A Pennsylvania judge backed off her threat to jail Philadelphia's schools chief last week after the two reached a truce in their high-profile battle over the school district's spending priorities.

Angered by the $1.3 billion budget the district adopted late last month, state Judge Doris Smith had threatened to hold Superintendent David Hornbeck in contempt of court.

At issue was more than $16 million for kindergarten, preschool, and desegregation programs that the judge demanded but which Mr. Hornbeck said he couldn't pay for unless the state provided the money.

After days of furious diplomacy last week, Mr. Hornbeck, Judge Smith, and the members of the school board signed an agreement in which the 215,000-student district pledged not to violate the judge's order.

But if it doesn't get the necessary funds from Harrisburg or can't find the money elsewhere in the budget, the district reserved the right to seek relief from the judge's demands, either from her or from a higher court.

The spending showdown came days after Judge Smith opened a hearing into whether the state should be required to increase substantially the amount of money it provides the Philadelphia schools. The hearing is part of a 25-year-old desegregation lawsuit against the district.

Mr. Hornbeck said in an interview that the accord on the budget will return the court's focus to where he thinks it should be: state funding of the schools.

"We've gotten off track," he said. "But now that's over.

Staff Cuts Slated

In addition to the funding at stake in the lawsuit, the district is wrestling with the question of how much aid it will get from the state in the coming fiscal year.

By law, the district is required to adopt a balanced budget by May 31, a full month before the legislature and governor must enact theirs.

Mr. Hornbeck said he expects to receive enough extra money from the state this year to satisfy the judge's demands and avoid many of the deep cuts in staff and programs now called for in the district's budget.

Those reductions include about 225 school-based positions, another 100 jobs in district-run child-care programs, and about 160 administrative slots.

Judge Smith has insisted that the district find some $6.6 million to extend full-day kindergarten to the entire system, another $6 million to preserve preschool programs, and about $3.7 million to continue programs that are designed to enhance racial diversity.

The district has agreed to make those expenditures the first it would restore if state funds come through.

Mr. Hornbeck said he will need an additional $26 million from the state to satisfy the judge and avoid the other staff cuts.

As part of the agreement reached last week, Judge Smith ordered district officials to return to court on July 5 to review whether her budget demands have been met.

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