On Eve of Budget Hearings, Phila. Sues State for More Aid

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In a move timed to coincide with this week's city budget hearings, the Philadelphia school district is suing the state for $52.8 million, claiming that Pennsylvania is shortchanging urban children

Joined by the city and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the 215,000-student district filed the lawsuit in state court on Feb. 24. Mayor Edward G. Rendell and John F. Street, the City Council president, said they supported the suit.

"The legislature and the governor have got to fix the way they appropriate money," said William Epstein, a district spokesman.

Need for Aid Questioned

The state is already fighting a court order to pay $45 million to integrate and improve the city's schools. The decision, part of a 25-year-old school desegregation case, is now on appeal before the state supreme court. ("Hornbeck, Judge Reach Truce in Spending Battle," June 12, 1996.)

Another challenge to the state's school funding system, by the Pennsylvania Association of Rural Schools, is now being heard by a state court in Harrisburg.

The various court challenges amount to a broad attack on how the state aids schools in poor neighborhoods throughout Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit filed last week names as defendants Gov. Tom Ridge, the state education secretary, and leaders of the legislature.

"We are very disappointed by this latest tack taken by the district, and we look forward to the day when it focuses less on lawyers and more on improving schools," said Tim Reeves, a spokesman for the Republican governor.

He noted that the Philadelphia district spends more per pupil than the national average, and receives substantially more state funding per pupil than the surrounding suburbs.

The district is expected to ask the City Council this week to approve its share of the proposed $1.46 billion budget, which includes no new programs.

But to make up for some one-time city and state grants, higher enrollment, and inflation, district officials say they need an additional $52.8 million in state aid. The district receives about 60 percent of its budget from the state.

If the City Council approves the budget proposal, that will increase the pressure on state lawmakers to increase the district's funding, local officials believe.

"We've already cut to the bone," Mr. Epstein said. "It's time for the state to step up to the plate."

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