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Philadelphians Seek to Stave Off Proposed Cuts to Schools

Philadelphia

More than 50 residents, parents, and educators braved pouring rain on Wednesday evening to hear and give their thoughts to the city's School Reform Commission on the proposed operating budget for the upcoming school year during the first hearing on a spending plan that the School District of Philadelphia has said could spell another year of doom and gloom for the financially strapped district.

The new budget crisis comes as the district still struggles to recover from last year's budget cuts, which forced the school system to  lay off more than 3,000 workers and closed about two dozen schools.

With near unanimity, speakers decried the plan for shortchanging their children and the city's students; questioned the school district's funding priorities, including its decision to expand charter schools while simultaneously cutting funding to district-run schools. A few speakers proposed an unusual approach to halting the perennial budget shortfalls: Instead of cutting the budget to its bare bones, spend the available funds to provide students with everything they need, and when the money runs out—whether it's in December or April—shut down the system to send a message that the state and city cannot continue to underfund Philadelphia's system. A few even called for an end to the state-run board and the adoption of a school board that would be accountable to the city residents. Others chastised the district for "bullying" teachers.

Beset by years of funding cuts, rising pension, health-care, and debt-service payments, the district is again asking for financial help from the City Council, its labor unions, and the state government.

The  district's FY 2015 operating budget of $2.49 billion, first unveiled last week, has a $216 million deficit , and if additional funding does not come through, the district may have to make cuts that would  imperil its ability to educate the 131,362 students in its schools.

It is asking for $440 million. At minimum, it requires $216 million, $120 million of which district leaders hope will come from an expansion of the city's sales tax. Without that, the school system will have to institute another round of massive layoffs, increase class sizes, and cut support services. That's on top of about $304 million in cuts made last year.

Classrooms are likely to be the hardest hit, with the possibility of 800 teachers losing their jobs; and class size could increase to a maximum of 37 from 30 students in grades 1 to 3; 40 from 33 in grades 4 through 8; and 41 from 33 in grades 9 to 12.

The school district is seeking $150 million in new revenues and recurring revenues from the state, and $75 million in recurring revenue from the city. Another $95 million expenditure savings from the union is also being sought.

"We need recurring, sustaining, sustainable revenue in order to operate the school district we all want and believe our children deserve,"  Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski said during an overview presentation of the budget, showing the efforts the district has taken over the years to reduce spending and the effects of the impending cuts.

In introducing Stanski's presentation, Superintendent William  R. Hite said the current system was unsustainable and that the additional cuts would take the schools from "insufficient to just empty shells."

He expressed frustration that the district was in a near-identical position to last year's, and hope that those responsible for providing funds—the city and the state—would step up.

"I have repeatedly said [that] I am agnostic about the source of funding, but I assure you that our need for additional funding is urgent," he said.  "The new normal does not serve the needs of our students, families, staff or residents of this city or state. Everyone deserves more, especially our children. I am hopeful that we would change this conversation from survival and sustainability to one that focuses on teaching and learning, one that focuses on investment and innovation. Our students deserve nothing less."

Experts say the budget problem is structural, caused in a large part by decades of underfunding from the state legislature and exacerbated in recent years by severe statewide education cuts of nearly $1 billion in 2011.

Until the state radically changes the way it funds public education, the Philadelphia district may find itself in the same boat next year, which does not bode well for the district, its students or the city, advocates say.

 "We have a moral crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of public priorities here," Susan Gobreski, the executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said in an interview earlier this week. "We need to stop holding out on the public schools."

But it is unclear whether additional funding, beyond what's already committed, would be forthcoming from either the state or the city council, though last-minute deals were struck last year to help the schools.

Jay Pagni, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last week that it was time for the union and the city council to step up and provide the revenue and savings to help the district. The state has done its part, he said.

 "It's past time the city council and union do the same," he told the paper. "As has been stated repeatedly, the solution to the district's financial woes rests solely on the shoulders of the PFT [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers]  and city council," Pagni said

City Council President Darrell Clarke wants any additional aid to the school district to be accompanied by financial oversight and is calling on the state legislature and the governor to create such an oversight body, which he is hoping will be formed this year, according to a spokeswoman for his office. 

The community has been rallying to stave off any cuts and encourage the local council to act. Outside of Wednesday's meeting, members of the Public Citizens for Children and Youth handed out campaign buttons calling for the council to pass the sales tax extension.

Inside the auditorium, one woman held a sign that called for an end to the school reform commission. Students at YESPhilly, an alternative public school that may lose funds this year, wore black T-shirts with the school's logo.

One student, Olivia Parris, 20, praised the school, which she said was like a second home for many nontraditional students and gave them a second chance at earning a high school diploma.

"I don't know what I would do without YESPhilly," Parris said, asking the refrom commission to fund the school.  "If it weren't for YesPhilly, I probably wouldn't take the steps to get my diploma. I probably wouldn't take my education seriously; I would only be concerned with working and providing for my son."

Karel Kilimnik, a former teacher and a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, blamed Hite's association with the Broad Academy for creating some of the uncertainty in the district.

The academy, which supports training for district leaders, favors "marketplace education," a philosophy she thinks is linked to the increase in the number of charter schools in the district while programs, including those with proven success track records, are cut at district-run schools.

Allison McDonald said the officials were all to blame for the conditions in the school district. By relying on parents to fill the gap in funding, the district was perpetuating a system of inequality between students in well-to-do districts, whose parents may be able to chip in, and others with less economic means to do so.   Such a system eroded public education for all students, she said.

She called for civil disobedience. "We cannot survive another year of deprivation," she said.  "This has become institutionalized child abuse and it must stop."

Two principals, Karen Thomas and Jessica Brown, detailed the fallout from last year's bare-bones budget, the chaos surrounding the school's opening, and the constraints they faced during the year because of funding cuts.

Brown, a principal at The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush—a school of 560 students, a two-day-a-week nurse, one full-time counselor, and 26 teachers—said she was concerned about both the short- and long-term consequences for students.

"This year's school budget is not just a disgrace, it's dangerous," Brown said. "I am here because each day, I know that most principals feel that we are ... two steps away from something very dangerous happening."

The danger to students was not just physical because there were fewer adults supervising them, she said. It was also about the other disadvantages that students faced because of the absence of things like extracurricular programs or guidance counselors to help prepare college applications.  Given the continued cuts, Philadelphia public school students may not be able to attend the great universities in or near their city because they are not as prepared as their peers in surrounding suburban districts, she said.

"If we want Philadelphia to be a first-class city, we need to have a first-class public education system," she said in asking the reform commission not to institute further layoffs.

Responding at the end of the session, School Reform Commission Chairman William Green took exception to criticisms that his panel was not doing enough to resolve the funding crisis, was attacking its teachers, and was asking too much of them in terms of concessions.

"We are upset," he said, pushing back at some of the charges, but conceding that the requests to the union were "unfair" and "disgraceful."

 "We all are outraged, we are disgraced that we are here talking about cutting again instead of investing, that we have to ask sacrifices of our teachers that no school district has achieved nor should achieve because, fundamentally, it's unfair.  But guess what? That's where we are. We have no choice; as fiduciaries and responsible stewards of the dollars that are given to us, we have to do what the law and other people require. But make no mistake: What is happening in our schools is immoral. It is wrong, and we will do everything that we can to change it and get the funding that is necessary."

 

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