Surrounded by uncertainty
After deep budget cuts and 24 closures, the District faces uncharted territory as students return to school.
by Dale Mezzacappa
As the Philadelphia School District prepared to open for the 2013-14 school year, teachers scoured for usable desks that they could stuff into classrooms with, in some cases, 40 or more students.
Some even contemplated bringing in spare chairs from home.
“We have a lot more students and fewer staff members,” said Barbara Keating, head of the English department at South Philadelphia High School. “Classes are going to be much larger than what we’re used to here, so there is a lot of scrambling to find enough desks, and desks that are usable.”
Southern is expected to more than double in size due to an influx of students from Bok Technical High School, which was among 24 schools that were closed down last spring.
Southern is not alone. Roxborough High School is getting students from Germantown, also closed. Enrollment is expected to jump from about 500 to 680 students.
Roxborough teacher Heidi Rochlin is expecting 41 students in her Algebra 1 class.
But that’s not the half of it.
“Last year we had three counselors, this year we have none,” said Rochlin, who also teaches music. “There is no assistant principal and just one discipline dean.” Last year, there were two deans and an assistant principal.
“We’re a little bit nervous the principal is not going to be able to do it all by herself, welcoming the students from Germantown and meeting their needs,” Rochlin said.
Ideally, the widespread closures, which displaced some 10,000 students, would have led to significant new resources for the schools that are receiving students, like Southern and Roxborough. But the extra assistance has been minimal, teachers, parents and principals say.
While the District has rarely in its history had money to spare, it has never faced such a deep financial crisis.
It is also starting the year without a contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The School Reform Commission is asking the PFT take huge pay cuts and give up cherished rights like seniority,
all amid legal uncertainties over whether it can simply impose terms on the union if no agreement is reached.
Since 2011, the District has cut its personnel by 28 percent – eliminating 3,000 positions in two of the last three years – and has closed some 30 schools. During that same period, enrollment in District-run schools has declined more slowly, by about 18 percent, to about 134,000.
The District now spends about a third of its $2.7 billion budget on debt service and charter school costs.
“I don’t think anybody imagined we would be where we are with education funding,” said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education adviser. “We are in unforeseen territory.”
To close a $304 million gap between its needs and what it has to spend, the District has laid off thousands of workers and prepared to open schools with deep shortages of key personnel like counselors, librarians, assistant principals, aides, and nurses – not to mention supplies, equipment, and books.
Split classes – putting students from different grades in the same classroom to save teacher costs – are back. Safety plans for students traveling to their new schools are spotty.
Parents wondered if children will get legally mandated special education services. Without counselors, were schools equipped to handle mental health crises?
There were few answers.
Superintendent William Hite more than once has called the District’s financial situation untenable and catastrophic.
But he and members of the School Reform Commission have also stuck to their plan of not budgeting any money they cannot be certain of receiving. Having fallen short in their request to the state and the city for $180 million in additional funds, they gave the teachers’ union a stark choice: Take pay and benefit cuts, or work in severely understaffed schools.
“I don’t know of any time when Philadelphia or any district that I’m aware of has been forced to cut employees down to numbers we’re talking about to operate schools,” said Michael Churchill, who is of counsel to the Public Interest Law Center (PILCOP). “The system is as close to bare bones, with nothing left standing, as any situation that I’ve heard of.”
Parents, students, and advocates have held protest after protest for more funding and complain that the District’s requests have been too feeble. City leaders kicked in about $78 million, but are at odds over how to raise $50 million of it. Gov. Corbett’s response was a cobbled-together funding package that relies primarily on city money and is laden with conditions. It also doesn’t meet the District’s needs this year – and, according to Churchill and others, not for the future.