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Judge Temporarily Halts Philadelphia School District Layoff Plan

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge Monday granted a temporary restraining order against the School District of Philadelphia, putting a halt for now the school district's plan to lay off 1,500 teachers.

Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman confirmed on Monday that the district was sending out layoff notices to 3,024 employees, including the teachers. She said teachers at the district's worst-performing schools (dubbed "promise academies" by the district) would not be subject to the layoffs because she wanted to minimize disruptions at those failing schools.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers went to court on Monday afternoon, asking for a temporary restraining order to prevent the school district from moving forward with the layoffs, which the union says must done according to seniority -- including "promise academy" teachers -- according to its collective bargaining agreement.

Common Pleas judge Idee Fox issued the TRO and scheduled a hearing on the matter for June 14th, forcing the school district to rescind the layoff notices for the time being.

Earlier in the day, seeking to smooth out an apparent rift with Mayor Michael Nutter, Ackerman said she would provide the mayor with whatever documentation is needed to get millions in new funding from the city.

"We're going to be accountable for whatever resources that we get," Ackerman told reporters after an event at the National Constitution Center on Monday. "We have no trouble; I have no trouble with accountability and transparency."

Late Sunday night, Mayor Nutter sent a nine-page letter to members of the School Reform Commission demanding that Dr. Ackerman turn over a "complete and detailed accounting" of the district's funds. The district has come under fire in recent months for proposing to cut valued programs like all-day kindergarten and school busing to help close a $629 million budget gap.

"We, the city, need to have a much better understanding of the district's financial picture, how they make operational decisions," the mayor said today. "In order for us to be better partners with the district, to be able to explain publicly what is going on inside, we need more information."

Two weeks ago, district officials asked the city for $75 million to $110 million to help save kindergarten and busing, along with accelerated high schools and preserving smaller class sizes.

Last week, the mayor proposed increasing parking meter rates, and either enacting a new tax on soda or increasing property taxes by 10 percent to raise the money.

Several City Council members, however, expressed concern last week that the district was not effectively managing its finances and wondered if the district was "fearmongering" by putting some of its most effective programs on the chopping block.

Then, on Friday, Ackerman announced that she had saved all-day kindergarten by shifting some funds, catching the mayor off-guard and raising new questions about how much the school district needs a significant tax increase to save key programs.

The mayor says his letter was not in response to that announcement but it does reference it:

"With last Friday's sudden and surprising announcement by the superintendent that full-day kindergarten will be funded from Title I dollars for the coming school year, the need for vital information is even more urgent," the mayor wrote. "Now is the time for rapid response and a clearing of the air. We need facts and clear statements about what the District will do with any restoration of funds."

The mayor's letter laid out a number of scenarios to provide the school district with new funds ranging from $54 million to $206 million. He is also asking the SRC to sign an "Education Accountability Agreement," giving the city more oversight of the financially-strapped district.

Ackerman says she and the mayor have moved beyond their differences from Friday.

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"We've talked about that, and I think that we agree that we're going to focus on getting these funds," she said. "The decision [to restore full-day kindergarten] happened quickly, and it was purely an educational decision. I was trying to support the thousands of parents out there who are waiting and in limbo, and I realize it may have created some political problems for the mayor. I didn't think about that."

Meanwhile, KYW Newsradio City Hall Bureau chief Mike Dunn reports that all of this has thrown the mayor's plan for a soda tax to bail out the school district into disarray.

Some Council members, like Maria Quinones Sanchez, say the school district's plan to use Title I funding for full-day kindergarten won't wash, since those funds are earmarked for lower income students.

"Using Title I funding that is based on a poverty formula may open up a can of worms," she said. "You may be closing one hole and opening up ten others."

Other lawmakers, like Councilman Curtis Jones, say Council approval of a soda tax or the alternative, a property tax hike, is now less likely with the District's action.

"It was a non-consensus to start with. This doesn't help matters," he told KYW Newsradio.

Councilman Bill Greenlee agrees:

"Given that their main ask was full-day kindergarten, and now they took care of kindergarten, I have to ask the question back, do we really need to raise taxes?"

A hearing on the soda tax and property tax proposals is set for Friday.

Reported by Ben Simmoneau, CBS 3; Mike DeNardo, KYW Newsradio 1060; and Mike Dunn, KYW Newsradio 1060

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