November 23 — 12:00 am, 2006

Parents: ‘Not another school cut’

Overcrowding and budget cuts have sparked an upsurge in activism

budgetrally004 0 Photo: Matt Seaver

Last spring, as many Philadelphia schools got word that they would be losing teaching positions, parent groups across the city started to speak up about the threat of more overcrowded classrooms.

The staffing reductions announced last spring turned out to be the harbinger of much bigger budget problems to come. By fall, a $73 million budget shortfall was hanging over the School District.

But the parent protests last spring were also a harbinger. The fall has seen a citywide upsurge of parent involvement in budget issues. Parent activists have been insisting that District officials create forums for dialogue with parents – while successfully steering the focus of budget-cutting discussions away from school-based programs and onto private contracts.

Parents showed up in droves at specially scheduled School Reform Commission meetings in November, expressing anger about painful staffing cuts that took place last spring and this fall and demanding that District leaders find a way to protect school programs across the city from further damage due to the budget situation.

“We now have upwards of 285 classrooms overcrowded. This is wrong,” said Harry Levant, president of the Shawmont Home and School Association and a member of Parents United for Public Education, a new coalition that came together to fight school-based budget cuts.

“Do not implement a single additional cut without full and complete public input,” Levant told the SRC.

Many parents spoke out about an unpopular District decision to reassign 65 teachers six weeks into the school year rather than hire new teachers to relieve overcrowded classrooms.

For the first time in years, the District conducted “leveling” in October – reassigning teachers from some classrooms to relieve overcrowding elsewhere. One result was dozens of split-grade classrooms, and still many classrooms remained overcrowded. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said it filed a record number of grievances about classroom overcrowding.

Parents and other education advocates also expressed concern that the city and District have not been working closely to craft a joint solution to the District’s budget shortfall.

“We’ve heard bickering between the city and District about gestures of accountability, but no commitment from either side to protecting our kids,” said Powel School parent Helen Gym, also a member of Parents United for Public Education.

At the first of the SRC’s budget hearings on November 8, the CEO’s budget-balancing plan was presented, with 60 specific recommendations for savings. The plan called for a total of almost $70 million in projected cutbacks. Key components included a proposal to negotiate a 10 percent across the board reduction in contracts as well as an immediate 20 percent reduction in central office staff.

District CEO Paul Vallas clarified that several controversial ideas circulating were not on the table, including reductions in nurses, librarians, counselors, school psychologists, and itinerant music teachers.

The School Reform Commission’s initial round of cuts carefully avoided school-based programs. This batch of cuts primarily targeted central office personnel and private contractors.

But as the SRC and Vallas continue to seek agreement on ways to secure at least $70 million in cost savings this school year, there are still dozens of possible cuts that would impact schools directly. One list of proposed cuts the District has been studying includes over 80 possible reductions identified by a District financial consultant, Public Financial Management.

Parents were joined by student activists, teachers, and concerned community members in highlighting areas in jeopardy under the CEO’s plan. SRC members heard testimony urging the District not to slash funds earmarked for areas like special education, transportation, dropout prevention, and schools’ discretionary budgets.

Other parent organizations that mobilized their constituents to speak out on the budget cuts included representatives of many Home and School Associations and the citywide Home and School Council, the Philadelphia Right to Education Task Force, the community group We Overcome, and groups associated with the Saturday morning SMART program.

Parent activists do appear to be getting positive responses from District officials on several different fronts:

  • Getting some of the proposed budget cuts taken off the table. While the SRC was not precluding most of its options, it did reject ten of Vallas’s proposals because of their expected impact on students. Vetoed by the SRC were cuts to the City Year program in high schools, elimination of Red Cross clubs, and reduction in certain library supports.

  • Encouraging more cuts in private contracts. Both CEO Vallas and Commissioner Sandra Dungee Glenn have joined parents in support of deeper contract cuts. Dungee Glenn asked for an examination of the District’s large, multiyear and multimillion dollar contracts – including education management organizations like Edison Schools Inc. – where cuts could go much deeper than 10 percent.

  • Calling upon the District to treat parents as partners in the process. The District distributed and posted on its website (www.phila.k12.pa.us) two lengthy budget documents, including an impact statement detailing the likely effects of various budget cuts. Vallas said he would be putting more of the District’s financial information online. Meanwhile, the SRC expanded its November meeting schedule from two to four sessions, holding a rare evening meeting, and invited comments via email on the budget situation (src@phila.k12.pa.us).

  • Pressuring city officials to work with the District. While Mayor Street and CEO Vallas continued their verbal sparring that has gone on for months, the mayor became a frequent visitor to District headquarters, attending all four November SRC meetings. Street did not rule out providing more money to the School District, though he stressed the need for additional state support.

CEO Vallas said the message he heard loud and clear from both the public testimony and numerous meetings with school-based groups was the strong support for class-size reduction.

He said he also believed that parent and community groups “want to focus on broader issues, and that is ‘How are we going to adequately fund schools?’”

But putting the District’s financial house in order is an immediate task. The elimination of as many as 185 jobs in the District’s central office is expected to have some ripple effects across the District.

The SRC also moved to implement new, tighter procedures and controls, including the creation of its own audit committee for budget oversight. SRC members, as well as parents and other advocates, sharply criticized Vallas for not foreseeing such a large deficit.

But some pointed out that the current budget crisis is partly a symptom of the chronic inadequacy of Pennsylvania school funding for less affluent school districts like Philadelphia.

There were, however, different points of emphasis about the shortfall. Vallas called the $73 million figure “a hole that’s manageable and can be closed” – without cutting core programs.

But Commissioner Dungee Glenn noted, “We are still in my belief an underfunded district. We will never be able to implement the changes that we need across this system without additional revenue.”

SRC member Martin Bednarek said he was hopeful that the District could secure additional city and state funding. But first, he said, “They need to know that our numbers are right. We’ve got to get our house in order.”

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