Facing a $304 million budget gap, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite has asked for an assurance by Friday that the district will receive an additional $50 million.
If this money comes through, he's said schools will open on time, but staffing levels will be only "functional."
Some principals as well as home and school associations have taken it upon themselves to ask parents to help make up the difference by opening their checkbooks.
Last week, up against a $355,740 budget shortfall for his individual school, Greenfield Elementary principal Dan Lazar sent parents an "urgent request" asking families to contribute $613 per student.
"This money is not coming from the city right now, and we had to at least make the ask," he wrote.
Lazar stipulated that a donation was not a requirement.
"We never said this was a mandatory thing. We never said that people had to do it. It was an ask. It was a request, and that those who were able to, we appreciate it," he said. "And those who can't, we completely understand."
But even if not mandatory, this "ask" raised the ire of many who closely watch the trends in Philly's public education system.
'Essentially ... a tuition'
"Oh, my heart sank when I heard that that letter had gone out," said Eileen Duffey, a school district nurse who works at the Academy at Palumbo and the Arts Academy at Benjamn Rush. "It felt like we were asking of our parents to do something that just doesn't happen in public schools -- essentially to pay a tuition, that's what it sounded like to me."
Duffey said she fears this sort of funding strategy will allow parents of greater means to feel less engaged with what she sees as the larger tragedy of public education disinvestment.
"The problem of public education right now should make everybody feel bad, should make everybody upset," she said. "And if all of us have to be taken down to our knees -- and if this entire city needs to be wailing and crying, that that is the disaster that is our public school education today -- then that's what we have to do."
But others, including many Greenfield parents, feel Lazar's action was justified.
"He's left with no avenues. He's left with absolutely no choice," said Natasha Andjelkovic who has a first-grader at Greenfield. She and her husband already have decided to donate more than what Lazar asked.
"Philosophically, people who are opposed to this are, of course, right," she said. "But we are no longer operating on philosophical terms. We're operating in a reality where children are supposed to go to school on Sept. 9 and there is absolutely no one to supervise them."
Similar pleas in the past
Greenfield is the first school in the city to have a principal make a direct, solo pitch for money for operating expenses. But in June, Meredith Elementary School's home and school association made a similar plea "in conjunction" with the principal.
Including Greenfield and Meredith, school district officials count six district schools that have, at some point, staffed positions with the help of private funds.
Karen Thomas is principal at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary, where the home and school association raised cash in 2011 to fund a noon-time aide position. She said she probably wouldn't go as far as Lazar has, but that she's certainly thought about it.
"I think he was a little more bold than some of us in asking that, but don't think there aren't principals who didn't think about that, because I'm sure we all have," she said. "Because we still don't know how we're going to do it."
For Lazar, the issue is a bit of a paradox. He felt the ask was necessary to provide Greenfield students a safe environment, but he also worries about the larger implications of his action.
"It is becoming a trend more and more in public schools," said Lazar, "which is unfortunate because, in some ways, the burden of funding schools is in some ways taken off the state."