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Public not happy with District budget scenarios

  • budget hearing src
    Photo: Charles Mostoller

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As the angry crowd of parents, principals, teachers, and other public education advocates filed out of Wednesday night’s School Reform Commission budget hearing, SRC Chair Bill Green gave a capsule summary of what he said moments earlier.

“It’s immoral what’s happening to the students,” he said. “It’s unfair what’s happening to the teachers.”

The two-hour hearing on the District’s 2014-15 school budget included a grim presentation of the District’s financial picture by Chief Financial Officer Matthew J. Stanski and a flood of critical testimony, mostly from parents and educators.

Stanski said that the District needs $216 million in new money just to maintain last year’s bare-bones level of services. Superintendent William Hite said that lacking this, schools will be “empty shells” when opening next year. More than 1,000 more teachers and support personnel would be laid off, class sizes would increase to as high as 41, and there would less money for such things as special education services and transportation.

More than two-dozen speakers criticized and shouted at Hite and the SRC for making unwise choices with the resources they had and failing to fight hard enough for more.

Several called for a version of educational civil disobedience: Either refuse to open the schools with the money they now have or open them at full strength and close them when the money runs out.

“This year’s school budget is not just a disgrace -- it’s dangerous,” said Jessica Brown, principal of the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush.

“Yes, there is the physical danger due to the lack of adults in a school to supervise. … But what I also mean as dangerous is the incredible disadvantage that the students in Philadelphia are experiencing right now and will continue to experience without proper funding.”

Karen Thomas, principal of Cook-Wissahickon Elementary in Roxborough, described running the school of 460 K-8 students without a guidance counselor, dean of students, and other support staff.

“This left me to manage the entire school virtually alone,” she said. “Crises were managed by me and anyone else on my school team who may have been on a prep period.”

She called for opening the schools with an adequate budget, running them as long as possible, and then shutting them down.

As angry as the speakers were at the lack of money, many were equally upset at how the District spends what it has, particularly on consultants, more charter schools, and central administrative staff. The District is opening three new high schools in the fall. It could turn two District schools over to charter operators and has projected those could cost $4,000 per student more than what it spends now. It has also recently added a director of recruitment at a $90,000 annual salary.

“You got a three-year grant from the Carnegie Foundation to start three new high schools and you have stripped so many staff positions from Bartram High School that the school starts to melt down,” said Karel Kilimnik, a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.

“You just spent $175,000 to develop school progress report cards for underfunded schools and you could not find $70,000 to keep a 31-year partnership at Bodine High School?” she asked.

Alison McDowell, a Masterman parent and vocal critic of the District’s expansion of charter schools, said that “token beams of sunshine funneled through the Philadelphia School Partnership to a short list of ‘innovators’ function as a convenient distraction from the maelstrom of disinvestment taking place.”

She described the current funding system as “institutionalized child abuse.”

Other speakers expressed support for teachers, saying they are being, in the words of one parent, “bullied” into making sacrifices the city and state won’t.

In remarks before he adjourned the meeting, Green sharply disagreed. “I don’t think we’re in the position of attacking teachers,” he said.  

“They are holding the schools together,” he said. “And the principals as well.”

None of the other commissioners commented or asked questions of District staff.

Green said it was “disgraceful” that the District was in the position of seeking work-rule concessions from teachers without financial compensation, “but that’s where we are.”

“We are upset” about the current situation, he said. “We are outraged. We are disgraced.”

He pledged continued efforts to get additional funding from the state and City Council, where he served until being named SRC chairman in February.

He said that he had expected at that time to be working to improve the system, not facing the same dire budget-cutting situation as in 2013-14.

But in her testimony, Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush principal Brown said that the fall of 2014 would not be the same as last year.

“For one year, we could pull it off,” Brown said.

“Any more, I shudder to think about it. Students and parents are going to leave the District.”

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Paul Jablow

@PaulJ1940
Paul Jablow is a freelance writer and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who contributes regularly to the Notebook.

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