September 24 — 10:31 am, 2014

Hite sees some progress in resource-starved system

But in schools the widespread worry is that skeletal staffing and funding have become the “new normal.”

15038204267 930f661244 z 0 Photo: Harvey Finkle

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.

“The schools have a better feel this year,” Hite told a Sept. 16 gathering of Philadelphia’s chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action. He said that this time schools have support personnel in place who were restored well after the start of last year when the District was able to pry loose more state funding.

He also cited as signs of positive momentum the opening of three new non-selective innovative high schools and a renewed focus on early literacy. Pre-kindergarten enrollment is on the rise, he said, which bodes well for that initiative.

Another round of cuts

As late as Aug. 15, Hite was dealing with a budget gap so big he was uncertain about whether schools could even open on time. He gave the green light only after assurances from state legislators that the proposed $2-per-pack, Philadelphia-only cigarette tax would be approved, generating an estimated $49 million – and after another round of $32 million in budget cuts affecting school police, cleaning staff, Promise Academies, and alternative education programs.

Over the summer the legislature couldn’t manage to get the cigarette tax passed. In mid-September the House and the Senate continued to differ over unrelated riders to the bill as city and school officials reiterated that not getting the tax would be unthinkable. Filling the $81 million budget hole that the cigarette tax is needed to help close would just bring the schools to the level of service in 2013, when thousands of layoffs and other cutbacks created conditions that nobody wants to concede are the “new normal.”

While he is trying to minimize the impression of dysfunction, Hite often reiterates that the schools still don’t have anything close to enough resources to grow and improve.

Principal Linda Carroll of Northeast High School, for instance, has a total operations budget for her 3,000-student school of $15,000. That comes out to $5 a student.

With that, she must pay for everything from copy paper and ink cartridges to class trips and afterschool clubs and programs.

Extracurricular activities like Northeast’s annual school musical and the student newspaper are supported through private donations, said spokesman Fernando Gallard.

With the exception of sports, “there are no afterschool programs unless kids fundraise,” he said.

Districtwide, Advanced Placement offerings are sparse. Sometimes students have to abandon the study of a language because there aren’t enough teachers to provide upper-level courses.

Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy, tweeted that “for SLA to be funded at pre-crisis levels, we would need $800K more than we have – or an extra $1,600 per kid.” Pre-crisis would mean 2011.

At least one class at Central High School started the year with 50 students, although officials said that an additional teacher was sent to create another section.

That’s just part of it. Most schools have either art or music, but few have both. Schools still share counselors and nurses.

Teachers and principals have been tweeting and sharing on Facebook tales of their meager school-issued supplies, posting photos of scant collections of pencils, pens, markers, paper clips, and erasers. Sometimes the posts have mordant humor, like getting staple removers but no staplers. Even toilet paper is sometimes in short supply.

Conflict over charters

Through all this, the District is still at odds with charter schools and advocates. Charter enrollment and District spending for charters continue to climb. Despite a commitment to creating a “portfolio model” of schools, both the School Reform Commission and Hite say the current charter funding model exacerbates the District’s funding woes.

So the District continues its freeze on the creation of new charters and is capping the size of existing ones.

Plus, it is battling in court with charter operators who contend that enrollment caps are illegal and that the District owes them money for additional students. Under Gov. Corbett, the state Department of Education has usually sided with the charters in these disputes.

The charter law hasn’t been significantly revised since it was created in 1997, and recent efforts to reform aspects of how charters are funded, especially regarding payments for special education students, have run into roadblocks in Harrisburg.

The SRC has voted to close six of the 86 Philadelphia charters, and all are appealing the actions.

The SRC has, however, continued to pursue conversions of low-achieving District schools to charters through its Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative. Last year, however, it introduced a new process that gave parents the option of rejecting charter conversion entirely instead of just choosing among potential outside providers. And parents at both schools targeted for turnaround, Steel and Muñoz-Marín, did just that, opting to stay within the District.

But it is still unclear what additional help and renewal the schools will receive. And it is unknown what form the Renaissance project will take this year.

Personnel and labor issues

In District-run schools, principal turnover continues unabated, with more than 40 schools getting new leadership this year. Robert McGrogan, head of the principals’ union, said that the District’s instability – and a new contract that includes significant concessions – played a part.

“We already have inadequate resources,” said McGrogan. “Now we’re worse off than we were. We’re not adequately able to support a quality learning environment in our schools.”

Finally, while the principals and other unions agreed to austerity contracts, negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers have gone on for 20 months with no sign of an agreement.

Initially, the District was seeking cuts in wages and benefits, as well as changes in work rules. It dropped the pay cut demand, but continues to push for benefit and work rule changes. District officials say an offer by the union of benefit givebacks was insufficient.

The work rule changes include further weakening of seniority provisions, particularly regarding layoffs. But the District also wants to remove longstanding contractual provisions such as those that set class size limits and require a counselor in every school.

PFT president Jerry Jordan said that the union won’t agree because those provisions “protect children.” But the District says that failure to trim compensation costs is resulting in layoffs and other cutbacks in schools that hurt students. Hite and SRC chair Bill Green said they were looking for union concessions so that cuts made in August could be restored.

During the protracted stalemate, the SRC, which was given special powers to impose contract terms on its unions when it was created by the state, has occasionally threatened to use them. It asked the state Supreme Court to fast-track a ruling that unambiguously affirmed those powers, but was rebuffed by the court in June.

A coalition of advocacy groups, including the PFT, is seeking the dissolution of the SRC and the return of a local school board and presented a petition for a non-binding referendum to City Council with 40,000 signatures. City Council approved it on Sept. 18, possibly too late to get onto the November ballot.

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