After 21 months of fruitless labor talks, the School District made a bold move Monday to unilaterally restructure teachers' health benefits and send $44 million in savings directly back to schools.
At a special meeting that was barely publicized until hours before its 9:30 a.m. start, with no public testimony before acting, the School Reform Commission unanimously voted to cancel the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in order to rework its health-care provisions. The District also filed a legal action in Commonwealth Court to establish its right to rewrite the contract based on special powers granted to the SRC.
To the consternation of the charter community, the School Reform Commission has not considered new charter applications since 2007, citing its precarious financial situation, although it has continued converting low-performing District schools to charters.
The very first question to Gov. Tom Corbett in his debate with challenger Tom Wolf went straight to the point: Are schools better off in Pennsylvania since he took office?
The issue of education took up the first 17 minutes of the candidates' hour-long debate on Wednesday morning. Starting at 8 a.m. in the studios of KYW Radio, it was broadcast during morning drive time.
In a round of lightning-fast questioning marked by verbal zingers and frequent interruptions, the two men largely repeated their campaign positions on the issue, which, polls have shown, dominates voter concerns.
Less than half of Philadelphia students in District schools read and do math proficiently, but the rates stayed essentially flat this year despite severe funding cutbacks.
Superintendent William Hite called the results good news.
A Common Pleas Court judge refused Wednesday to order the Philadelphia School District to immediately pay Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School nearly $1.4 million in disputed funds, endangering the school's ability to stay open.
This article will appear in the Notebook's print issue focusing on school funding in Pennsylvania, due out Sept. 26.
Students in Philadelphia returned on Sept. 8 to understaffed schools and often oversized classes, with teacher labor negotiations at a stalemate and Harrisburg still dithering over a cigarette tax to provide the District with needed funds.
Still, said Superintendent William Hite, things aren’t as bad as last year, when some schools opened with teaching staffs at bare minimum and counselors and assistant principals scarce.
In the opening weeks, Hite tried to put an optimistic face on what is shaping up as another year of uncertainty for the District.
After spending the better part of six months designing a brand new high school – meant to be a model for transforming the educational experience for ordinary students – Saliyah Cruz disclosed abruptly this week that she will be leaving to take a new job.
To put it mildly, everyone from Superintendent William Hite to students and staff who had made leaps of faith to join the new school were surprised and disappointed. The school, called the LINC (for Learning in New Contexts), shares a building with Roberto Clemente Middle School in Hunting Park.
Arthur "Larry" Melton, the retired principal of the now-defunct Bok Technical High School, has become the seventh Philadelphia principal to face official punishment as a result of a probe into widespread PSSA test cheating in the Philadelphia School District.
Melton, who was at Bok for a decade, surrendered his teaching and administrative credentials in July, according to a state website that reveals disciplinary actions against educators.
The notice of action states that he "violated the integrity and security of PSSA testing for multiple years."
When students showed up in school Monday, Saliyah Cruz and Neil Geyette embarked on the most important phase of an ambitious effort to reinvent the high school experience for many students in Philadelphia.
The two educators have designed and are running two brand new, non-selective high schools in North Philadelphia. Geyette is principal of the U School and Cruz is leading the LINC, which stands for Learning in New Contexts.
There have been no meaningful teachers' contract negotiations all summer because District leaders have declined to schedule any talks, union leaders told several hundred members who came to a general membership meeting Tuesday.
Teachers are returning to school this week without a contract, facing bare-bones conditions in schools but still under pressure to agree to contract changes that would save the District about $30 million.
Beginning high school is daunting enough for most young people. But this year, students in Philadelphia face worries that most of their counterparts in more reliably funded districts don’t have.
Will their schedules be disrupted if more layoffs become necessary and some teachers disappear? Will counselors be available to make sure they are taking the courses they need? Will their high school even offer all the courses they want – in some cases, courses that attracted them to that school in the first place?
With more than 40 schools opening in a week with new principals, the District has filled vacancies at Lea and Cook-Wissahickon elementaries and at Kensington CAPA and Kensington Business.
Jennifer Duffy is the new principal at Lea. According to a bio posted on the school's site, she was born and went to college in South Africa and most recently worked in the District's Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs. She is also a member of the Philadelphia Writing Project.
Superintendent William Hite said that some 7,500 Philadelphia high school students may not lose their transportation subsidy back and forth from school after all.
"We are working with several partners, and we think and are hopeful we will have a solution on that," Hite said at a Thursday evening meeting of the School Reform Commission. "Stay tuned."
Through last year, students who lived more than 1.5 miles from their high schools were entitled to free student SEPTA TransPasses.
With D-Day upon us -- the Aug. 15 deadline for layoffs and other cuts without a guarantee of more funds for this school year -- District leaders on Thursday first announced a special meeting of the School Reform Commission, then canceled that and opted for a press conference instead.
Superintendent William Hite will hold a press conference at 10 a.m. Friday in the atrium of District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. SRC members will be present.
You can hear them calling in the street.
They lean on corners, squat on milk crates, rest on folding chairs – angling for a buck.
At the bustling intersection where Erie and Germantown Avenues slice through North Broad Street, they occupy every corner, calling to passersby:
They're the city's black market cigarette hawks.
From packs semi-hidden in coat pockets or under thighs, the hawks sell individual "loosie" cigarettes. On a recent hot Friday afternoon, the going rate on North Broad was 50 cents a pop.