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When I was a kid, my sisters went through a period where they liked to stage tea parties.  They would lay out toy cups and plates and insist I join them for some nice tea and cake.   Only there was no tea and there was no cake.  Just empty plates.

Call it a failure of imagination, but I never saw the point of it and I was not the perfect guest.

In life, though, we do not always have the option of saying “This is stupid” and walking away.

Which explains the strangled statements of thanks from city and school district officials for the “financial aid package” offered by Harrisburg last week.  The quotes are intentional.

The district – seeking to plug a $300 million hole in its budget – went to the Capitol and asked for $120 million. The Corbett administration responded by offering a wonderful buffet of aid that included a heavy dose of empty promises and wishful thinking, but little hard cash.  To be exact, about $2 million.

To summarize, the governor pretended to help us and we pretended to be grateful.

Now, it is time to move on to the reality portion of the proceedings.

The reality is that the district does not have anywhere near the money needed to sustain its day-to-day operations.  Even when you add in the city’s share — $30 million – and the ifs-ands-and buts package hobbled together by the state (a combination of loans and a one-time infusion of federal money) it only comes to $125 million.

Next year the situation will improve a bit.  As part of the state aid package, the governor has generously decided to allow Philadelphians to tax themselves.  A one-point increase in the sales tax was enacted in 2009 to help the city through the Great Recession was due to expire in June 2014.  Corbett has proposed making it permanent, a move that will yield $120 million a year for the district.

Sorry for this blizzard of numbers. Theses recipes for imaginary cake can get complicated. But the bottom line is that the district is far from its goal of raising the $300 million it says it needs to rescind the 3,800 layoffs it made last month.

It says here in the script that this is the time when the district turns to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and says: Now it is your turn to make sacrifices (read: concessions).

But things went askew in the first two acts. The mantra of Superintendent William Hite has been that each party needed to make “shared sacrifices” to heal the district.  The city’s share was $60 million; the state’s $120 million, the teachers union another $120 million-plus.

But, the city’s share fell short because the state legislature wouldn’t pass Mayor Nutter’s plan to impose a $2-a-pack cigarette tax in the city.  And the state’s plan fell short because the state didn’t want to give $120 million.

In effect, Hite must now turn to the union and say: Well, we got screwed by the city and screwed by the state and so we are going to have to screw you even harder!  Sorry about that!

Somehow I don’t think the teachers, not at all happy with the idea of givebacks to begin with, are going to rally around that message.

To raise the money needed, the union would have to agree to life-changing concessions.  Even if teachers took a 10 percent cut in pay and agreed to pay 20 percent towards their health benefits, it would not raise enough money to fill the gap.  Add the combo of state and city aid, plus major concessions by the teachers, and it would total about $100 million less than the magic $300 million the district says it needs this year.

The hammer Hite does have is the fate of the 3,800 laid off workers, many of whom are PFT members. If the PFT wants them back, it will have to truly sacrifice. It does not have the option of saying “This is really stupid,” and walking away because its existing contract with the district expires at the end of August.

If we wished, we could discuss all day the reasons why the district is so short of cash.  Over our imaginary tea and cakes we could agree that it is due mostly to a retreat of the state and federal government from support of basic education.  And we could lament that fact and shake our heads sadly and perhaps shed a tear over the unfairness of it.

But, we may have to realize that this is the new normal.  That the odds of additional aid cascading from these sources are remote, certainly in the near term.  And, finally, we may be forced to admit that the district we have today – in terms of size and expenditures – exceeds the money available.

This is a structural defect that will only worsen over time.  The shortfall will repeat itself – again and again – until the deficit totals $500 million or even $1 billion.

This has to be dealt with today. Given the retreat of the state, dealing with it will be painful and difficult for the remaining parties involved.  The teachers will have to sacrifice more; the city will have to pay more.  The district will have to rethink its definition of basic services, even when it comes to such items as busing and policing.

There is no alternative.

On second thought, there is one other choice, and it is a tempting one if you are the district.

You could make some changes, get a few concessions and pretend they are enough.  Announce that the crisis is over; resume business as usual and move on. In others words, hope that more aid will materialize sometime in the future, spend money you don’t have, let the deficit pile up and don’t worry about the consequences.

Then sit down and have some tea and cakes.