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Budget dilemma: how to spare schools but cut $99M

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With a $180 million budget gap to close, the School District is inevitably cutting deeply into some areas.

The School Reform Commission and District managers say they’ve tried to be surgically precise in their cutbacks. But there is disagreement on whether they have actually succeeded in protecting the classrooms.

“The SRC was crystal clear as we attacked the budget reduction that they wanted to minimize the impact on schools and on classrooms,” said CEO Tom Brady. “We have been true to that.”

“You won’t see reduction of school nurses to the state-mandated levels. You won’t see a reduction of counselors,” he stated. He added that some planned cuts, such as a reduction in desegregation funding for 69 schools, were taken off the table when principals described the disruption it would cause.

With a big assist from parent activism, the District has fared well in securing tens of millions in new city and state revenues, averting deeper reductions. A new plan from Mayor Street to raise more revenue for schools by cracking down on tax delinquents promises to narrow the budget gap that remains.

But some parents and school advocates nonetheless point to harsh consequences of the cuts that have been made. With tight school budgets and many schools also squeezed by declining enrollments, this budget cycle has seen the loss of more than a dozen school librarians, dozens of paraprofessionals, and an estimated 180 teachers, they estimate.

Janet Malloy, president of the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians, said the system was down to only 80 libraries staffed by professional librarians last year. She offered a list of 15 librarians whose schools have now eliminated their positions. “How can we say we’ve got equity of offerings when so many schools don’t have libraries?” she asked.

“The central office may not be directly cutting all those positions, but this is the natural outcome of cutting our schools’ budgets back to the bare minimum,” said Helen Gym, a leader in Parents United for Public Education, a citywide group that has been organizing parents around the District’s budget. “It’s disingenuous to say schools are being spared. You have to understand that we’ve been cut back every single year for the past several years.”

No one denies that the central administration has been hard hit. In July, for the second time in seven months, 170 administrative positions were eliminated, including the closing of four regional offices through consolidations.

Central office cuts included the elimination of most new teacher coaches, several school psychologists, and the District’s “community builders,” who focused on parent and community relations.

“They have bent over backward to minimize direct cuts at the school level, but the indirect cuts are still harmful,” said the leader of the union representing principals, Michael Lerner, business agent for CASA Teamster Local 502.

“With anybody who provides services to the schools, the schools ultimately feel the impact of the cut,” Lerner said.

Last spring, the threatened cuts triggered large turnouts of concerned parents and students at May and June School Reform Commission meetings, challenging the process and questioning the budget plan. Forty parent groups endorsed a May 29 statement of “no confidence in the proposed District budget,” led by Parents United for Public Education and Philadelphia Home and School Council.

In the wake of this protest, the SRC agreed to a more extensive public process before making cuts, while restoring 100 of 250 teaching positions that had been targeted for elimination. District leaders pledged to address parent concerns about growing class size and split grade classes by earmarking these positions to alleviate those problems. Individual school budgets have been posted on the District’s website.

In August, the SRC followed up by endorsing a class size reduction plan for the 40 schools that have never met their performance targets under the No Child Left Behind law. The District is putting 35 new teaching positions in these schools to reduce class sizes to 22 students in first through third grade. Commissioners said they would continue efforts at class size reduction.

The District will dedicate about 55 additional teaching positions to eliminating split-grade classrooms citywide.

But as a cost-cutting measure, the District also plans to conduct “leveling” at about 30 schools in September, meaning that staffs of schools that fell short of projected enrollments will be rearranged so that a teaching position can be eliminated. Parent groups and the teachers’ union have criticized leveling and the disruption that results from the reassignment of teachers.

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