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State Ordered To Draft $45 Million Plan for Phila.

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Pennsylvania officials would have to find $45.1 million this year to improve what Philadelphia schools offer to minority students, following a state judge's ruling.

Commonwealth Court Judge Doris A. Smith last month absolved both the city school district, which cannot levy taxes, and the city of Philadelphia, which has had severe financial problems in recent years, from the responsibility for paying for a 1994 remedial order calling for extensive changes in the district.

Ruling in a 25-year-old school-desegregation case, the judge rejected the state's argument that the district could pay for the court mandates through cost-saving measures, including cutting other educational programs. The state also argued unsuccessfully that the remedial plan was too extensive, affecting schools that are not racially isolated.

Instead, Judge Smith ordered state officials and Gov. Tom Ridge to come up with a plan by Sept. 20 for transferring money to the school district to allow it to carry out its improvement plan. That plan, which calls for smaller classes in the early grades, professional development for teachers, parent-education programs, and other measures, is expected to cost $45.1 million this year.

"The time has come to put an end to this quarter-century-old case," the judge wrote, "but not at the further expense of the children who have suffered the most."

Judge Smith's Aug. 20 decision is not expected to be the last word in the Philadelphia case, which has broadened from a focus on students' assignments to an emphasis on educational quality that has targeted the state budget.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which assumed jurisdiction over the case in July at the request of Gov. Ridge, is expected to issue a ruling in the case this fall. Lawyers for the Republican governor objected to Judge Smith's decision to make the state a party to the lawsuit, arguing that she was not acting impartially. (Please see "Pa. High Court Curbs Judge During Desegregation Trial," August 7, 1996.)

Spending Gap

In her 55-page decision, the judge noted that the Philadelphia district, with 211,000 students and a budget of $1.45 billion, spends $6,261 per student. The average expenditure in neighboring suburban districts, she said, is $8,187.

The city government, which controls the district budget, hovered near bankruptcy in 1991 and has since recovered, the judge wrote. But state cuts in medical assistance to welfare recipients threaten to put the city in the hole again.

Barbara Ann Grant, a spokeswoman for the school district, said district officials felt vindicated by the decision backing their assertion that the district cannot pay for the new programs.

"There is a big gap between the school districts that surround us in the suburbs and what is being focused at Philadelphia public school students," Ms. Grant said. "This is very welcome news."

The remedial plan approved by Judge Smith fits closely with Superintendent David W. Hornbeck's "Children Achieving" reforms, although the judge has refused to authorize some parts of Mr. Hornbeck's plan, including money to reward teachers whose students achieve at high levels.

"We didn't get everything we wanted," Ms. Grant said, "but in substantive ways we're really in agreement with what she has asked for. It would help us tremendously to receive those funds."

Gail Tomlinson, the executive director of the Citizens Committee on Public Education in Philadelphia, also hailed the judge's decision.

The committee, a 116-year-old advocacy group, brought together a coalition of community groups that successfully intervened in the desegregation case in 1993.

"It is their responsibility to remedy 27 years' worth of inequity to minority kids in Philadelphia," Ms. Tomlinson said of the state. "Two generations of kids have been lost due to this."

Talks With Teachers

But Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for Gov. Ridge, said state officials are hopeful that the state supreme court will overturn the ruling.

"Judge Smith's legal conclusions are wrong and her findings of fact aren't supported by the record," Mr. Miskin said.

"We have every confidence that the supreme court will decide the issues fairly and correctly," he said.

Meanwhile, the school district and representatives of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers were conducting intensive negotiations last week to arrive at a new contract before Aug. 31. Members of the teachers' union have authorized a strike if a settlement is not reached.

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