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Education chat: Helen Gym – the continuing conversation

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

[Clarification: The questions posted below were ones that went unpublished and unanswered on on Thursday due to time or the moderator’s choice. I was not the moderator for the questions that did appear on the online chat.]

Yesterday, I was a guest on a live chat at about the District’s budget cuts. The dialogue was fast-paced and lively, and included comments from education advocates, parents, and District communications staff members Shana Kemp and Jamilah Fraser. Because of the timing, we couldn’t get in all the questions, so I posted them below.

For readability’s sake, I pulled out a few Q&As at the top, then posted the rest of the comments below unedited. Hopefully, others can continue the dialogue in the comments section.

1:11 [SMG]
Helen, is there any word on concessions that Ackerman will give on her very expensive renaissance initiative?

[Helen] This is a big question. Clearly the District has rolled back its Imagine 2014 plans, but it appears they are holding onto the Renaissance plan. I believe the Notebook estimated that each Renaissance school cost close to $1 million apiece and with 18 of them projected this year, it’s not an insignificant figure. The concern is whether the investment is a) sustainable, and b) leads to significant improvement for both the students and school communities.

1:13 [Sean F.]
It is about time the district trims Sports. While I played in Philadelphia Public League, the cost far exceeds the return. Education is the key component and maintaining sports fields, uniforms, and officials is less important then actually educating the youth of the city. Keep the arts and music programs.

[Helen] One of the things we want to do is to make sure all of the choices are on the table. It sure doesn’t feel like that when the District has not put out a list of its contracts. Alternative education is a huge expense within the District. How well has it worked? Is it worth the money? In the past year, the District approved an additional $1 million for the now $5 million Lucien Blackwell Community Center – is that a necessary expense at this time, if it means the loss of 100 teachers or more? How much are we spending on testing? So before we get to debating the merits of a basketball coach or an arts teacher, it’s important that we know all the options have been presented for review and have some sense of what we as a public community feel are essential services.

1:15 [Jennifer]
I have been to 2 of the "facilities meetings" about closing half empty and unused buildings. There hasn’t been any real information about which schools will be closed and when…that is money that is going out the window to man buildings that aren’t being used.

[Helen] The District recently announced that there would be no school closings in the fall, but left open the possibility of school consolidations. Recently, the Notebook published this document where the District seemed to lay out a preliminary plan for ranking schools. It’s worth a look.

1:20 [Cecelia]
I heard Dr. Nunery this morning on Fox 29 about the cuts. I believe he stated the Empowerment Schools will still get supports. Helen, do you know if these cuts affect ALL schools? Or, are the Empowerment and Promise Academies exempt from these cuts to schools?

[Helen] The District has not been forthcoming about how schools will be affected. We’ll get the clearest picture when the school by school budgets come out.

1:21 [Shana Kemp]
What everyone needs to face, is that we are all in this boat together. The budget decisions that the District is being forced to make are directly due to Governor Corbett’s budget proposal. If our funds are cut, how are we to continue to operate as we have been without those funds?

[Helen] First, it’s patently untrue that the District’s approach toward classroom cuts is solely due to the Governor’s budget. The City bears responsibility as does the District. I said earlier in the chat that the District is playing a dangerous game by putting all its energy into blaming Harrisburg without some sense of a more strategic and publicly responsive approach to its situation. No one denies the extent of the Governor’s devastating budget cuts. But even if the basic education subsidy were returned (and that is a big stretch) the District still faces an enormous hole as well as public mistrust over its financial management. The best thing the District can do is to address those concerns, build alliances with other districts in the southeastern region, demand city support, and work with school communities to allow them as much flexibility as possible to determine their priorities for the short term. As District staff, you should recognize that the District’s defensiveness and blaming-shifting is just not inspiring or helping motivate people to act or solve problems.

1:22 [Jennifer]
Where they should cut? How about the half empty buildings and unused buildings that are staffed and/or have maintenance at because of a safety issue. I went to two of the facilities meetings and there is no firm plans on which schools to close. That is money there. Take two half empty schools and merge and sell off or lease the empty buildings and lots.

[Helen] School closings may very well be a reality for the District, but such decisions are still going to have to be part of a long term process. A hasty process that lacks transparency or is not guided by clear principles hurts communities and can lead to chaotic and dangerous situations for students. This has been a major complaint from parents and school communities in Chicago, where school violence increased after a rash of school consolidations and closings.

1:23 [Question]
Any word on Ackerman’s salary.

[Helen] The Superintendent has offered to take 20 furlough days which amounts to roughly 7% of her base salary. Note however, that she received a 3% raise in the fall and is due another 3% this fall, accepted a performance bonus of $65K and is due a retention bonus of $100,000. Consider though that LA’s superintendent just announced that he is accepting a major paycut from $330K to $275K in the wake of his district’s budget problems. $275K is the average amount for a district the size of Philadelphia’s according to the Council of Great City Schools. You can read more here at my post at the Notebook.

1:30 [yakov]
Isn’t the city going to give more money with the higher take in real estate taxes?

[Helen] The city’s contribution toward the District is projected to decline to the lowest point since 2007-8 ($815 million for next year). According to District documents, city revenue increased from 2002-2009 by 5% but declined by .4% in the years ensuing. Because the city shifted the percentage allocated to the District from 60% of real estate revenue to only 55%, the increase in real estate taxes has had zero benefit for the schools.

1:32 [Jenna]
You mention asking the District to publish a list of contracts… sounds like there is a suspicion that other no-bid deals are going to politically connected companies and wasting District money that could be better spent on, y’know, education. Do you think an independent audit of the PSD would be valuable? If so how would we (present & future PS parents) lobby for such a thing?

[Helen] The District undergoes a regular audit, but my concern is that audits don’t always capture a true picture of the District’s financial decisionmaking. Personally, I think we need an entity with a little more teeth like an independent budget council that is PICA-like in its demand for financial management but sets educational priorities.

1:34 [Cecelia]
Helen, please let Ms. Kemp know the district sends out mass emails for community meetings, superintendent roundtables, and anything they want the public to attend. Putting it in the Daily News and Tribune, knowing most people read via email and the internet, says you did not want much public attendance at the meeting.

1:35 [Stan Shapiro]
Perhaps City Council could offer some aid, raised from reforming the business gross receipts tax so that it brings in more money from out of the City companies, conditioned on the District pulling in some wasteful management contracts and others.

[Helen] Stan has been a huge advocate in considering thoughtful and realistic ways about raising revenue without hurting the majority of residents and businesses in the city. I fully support approaches toward reforming business taxes that gives the city some additional revenue and avoids burdening small businesses in the city.

1:38 [yakov]
Is there such thing as a "good" spending plan that slashes $600m from the budget? Transparency is great, but do you honestly think there is really any course of action that is going to leave students, teachers and parents happy? This isn’t a good situation we have unfolding here.

[Helen] No I don’t think there’s any good in any kind of proposal that slashes that much money out of a budget. But I will say that those who seek to steer through such a radical rethinking of public education need credibility and trust in order to do so. There is a clear sense here that the District is protecting certain sacred cows – a refusal to do competitive bidding on professional services contracts, executive compensation, Renaissance initiatives that simply have no data or research backing them, other types of contracts – while using basic educational services as political footballs. I also don’t consider transparency to be some sort of feel good measure. It’s an important government tool to ensure fairness, equity and public voice in decisionmaking.

1:42 [Jim M]
Roughly how much would they make from taxing nat gas?

[Helen] The governor, who opposes the tax, has mentioned figures of around $170 million. Supporters of the tax probably have higher numbers. Anyone want to weigh in?

1:44 [T.A.]
Helen, Philadelphia has made significant academic gains with increased funding. How will the decreased funding impact student performance?

[Helen] If the District goes for the heart of classrooms and schools, like teachers and programs like art, music and athletics, then I don’t know a single U.S. study that shows that increasing class sizes in urban public schools actually benefits student performance.

1:45 [Jim M]
Is the series available online? I didn’t pick up the paper at all this week, I’ll get it today of course but need the whole series I think.

[Helen] If you’re talking about the Inquirer series on school violence, it’s available at

1:52 [Shana Kemp]
A media advisory was sent out about yesterday’s press briefing and a Notebook reporter was present, so that’s not true at all.

[Helen] A Notebook reporter was present for the press conference after the lump sum budget had already been passed.

1:55 [Brunie]
afterschool programs are very, very important. It gives children the opportunity to receive additional assistance in reading and math; builds confidence and opportunities for children with being able to put to use what they have learned. It keeps our kids off the streets and gets the parents involved. It is just as important as a days work – it is important to our children who want to feel part of something. Whether it is a school play, or sport.

1:59 [Dave]
The people in the Philadelphia school community need to stand up and demand that their voices be heard and legitimately listened to. There is a great article entitled "Leadership in the Eye of the Followers" by Kouzes and Posner. One of their conclusions is that followers listen to what a leader says, but they watch to see if their actions follow their words. If not, then they lose their leadership credibility.

2:02 [Shana Kemp]
It’s shameful that a conversation about the District’s budget is being held and yet, the District has been blocked from responding.

[Helen] The District has every opportunity to guide public discussion and debate. I don’t think it’s worth really complaining that a handful of comments didn’t get posted on Live Chat for an hour’s time, do you?

2:07 [yakov]
is it wise to spend time battling the District before the budget is passed? Isnt the enemy of your enemy your friend? Do you think spending so much energy attacking the administration (admittedly flawed) is going to help with the funding issues?

[Helen] Do you think asking questions about budget priorities is attacking the District? Do you think demanding a public voice in decisionmaking and not simply accepting District orders is also attacking the District?

2:08 [Guest]
nobody addressing the 1/2 million dollar yearly salary of the superintendent

2:08 [Shana Kemp]
The Superintendent has deferred acceptance of a contractual bonus, decided to work 20 days for free. I think she’s taken great steps to, as a leader, as budget planning goes forward.

2:14 [Aissia Richardson]
im really upset about these cuts especially half day kindergarten. How are parents who work going to manage if kindergarten is cut? It’s going to have a negative impact on working poor especially since affordable quality day care is hard to find!

2:16 [Aissia Richardson]
I’ve heard the state is not planning to reimburse for charter payments and the true district deficit is $790 Million. Can SRC format be rescinded and school board be reinstated if state does not pay for charters which was the carrot to create the SRC?

[Helen] A story I’m reporting on at the Notebook tomorrow indicates that the District budget deficit is over $800 million. Re: the SRC: The SRC was formulated through the state takeover. The state legislature would have to introduce legislation ending the takeover and reverting the District back to local control. My colleague at the Notebook, Ron Whitehorne, has written a three part series of blog posts arguing for a return of local control for Philadelphia schools, including an elected school board. Read Part 2 here at the Notebook.

Other comments that didn’t make it into the chat (in order of appearance):

1:10 [Shana Kemp]
Hi Jennifer, mentally gifted students are considered special education. The cut that we may have to make are due to the requirement that we present a balanced budget per the Home Rule Charter. We would like to not have to make any cuts, but the Governor’s budget proposal has left us with no choice.

1:11 [Cecelia]
Special Education is federally mandated. The district does the bare minimum, which is why it has $100K in litergation. Mentally Gifted is part of Chapter 16 of the PA Education Code. If a child has an MGIEP, they have rights. If a service is eliminated in the IEP due to funding, that is a violation and the student can receive compensatory services.

1:11 [stephanie]
all cuts being proposed need to start at the top : dr. ackerman’s salary & bonuses, and other 100 thousand plus salaries need to be cut … i believe dr. ackerman’s salary is more than that of the president of the united states!

1:17 [Jim M]
that is, that there should be a confidential complaint system in the schools, and only one official (eg the building rep) knows who made the complaint, so the teacher is protected. Similar to anonymous sources used by journalists

1:21 [Jennifer Hanson]
how about cutting bonuses and school positions like parent ombudsmen, who do nothing??

1:25 [Jim M]
IF it is because the state is broke, then why are they increasing the prison budget? Sounds like a plan to produce more prisoners (slave labor) by cutting education.

1:25 [yakov]
I’m confused as to how the major cuts annnounced by Corbett were supposed to be anticipated last year or the year before that. Has ANY school District realistically prepared for such drastic cuts? How about the State related universities? DOn’t think so. Philly is taking the brunt of the cuts and that directive came from Harrisburg, not 440

1:26 [Norman]
So how will Dr. Ackerman and the SRC be held accountable and what will it take? Or is it going to take what happened with Carl Greene and the housing authority?

1:27 [courtney]
it seems to me most miss the point because its not about fighting budget cuts from the state level its about addressing the cost/benefit from our own school system… with dropout rates as high as they are why on earth would anyone think the school should get more money let alone keep things at status quo

1:28 [Cecelia]
Special Education teachers are not safe from layoffs. The district will let teachers go and put children in regular education classroom under the guise of "inclusion". This was tried a few years ago with learning support and it was a disaster.

1:30 [Cecelia]
However, IDEA (the federal law) clearly states special education services cannot happen due to lack of funding. If this happens and parents are not notified via the IEP process of a change, this can be reported to the PA Bureau of Special Education.

1:34 [elaine]
Hi Mrs. Gym! It’s elaine chong from your 4th grade class. I just wanted to say hi. Can we catch up? Of course, not here in the chat. But elsewhere, do you have facebook?

[Helen] Hi Elaine! Please contact me via facebook or email:

1:34 [Geoffrey]
The PSD knows very well that there is a great deal of activism around this budget, and a great deal of mistrust of both Dr. Ackerman and the SRC. Why would they only advertise in two papers?

1:36 [Question]
Jennimd! A trip to Harrisburg is not enough. schedule meetings with your legislator or legislative aids

1:36 [monica]
the administration is being reactive not proactive

1:37 [Guest]
Is there any truth to the rumor that termination/layoff notices are going out today (for central office folks)?

1:38 [Glenn Ellis]
why are my comments not being posted????

1:42 [jennimd]
Amen to Jim M – I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but looking at the choices our state and our country continually make, one has to ask the question.

1:44 [mr. shoe]
i feel bad for most of the kids who want to learn

1:45 [tom]
Lets not forget that the superintendent has sworn that she will not disturb the funding for her promise schools . We don’t know how that is impacting this budgets

1:47 [Shana Kemp]
Tough choices will have to be made, but due to Governor Corbett’s budget, we have not choice. School principals will be presented with their budgets and they will have discretion as to how they will tailor the education offerings in their buildings, with guidance from the District.

1:49 [mike]
We as teachers are always blamed and looked at when , students dont make AYP, Well the district in my eyes has failed us and our children who can we hold up to take action on. SRC Has failed and now wit this money mess we will burn and fail

1:50 [Geoffrey]
My comment was really directed to Shana Kemp. They know that there would have been a lot of people there had they been more transparent.

1:52 [mr. shoe]
i agree taxpayer

1:53 [Jim M]
Don’t worry they won’t be "bloated" now. Back to 35 to 40 students/class, will that make you happy??

1:53 [Question]
there is PLENTY OF money around, tax marcellus shell, and corporate loopholes. Philadelphia and it’s surrounding areas provide the bulk of revenue in this state

1:53 [Jamilah Fraser]
No true. The lump sum meeting was posted in two publications (Daily News March 19th and Philadelphia Tribune on March 20th

1:54 [Jennifer]
Mr. Taxpayer, students are drilled on a "bell to bell" schedule and they are constantly being tested and retested, after school activities and music and art and mentally gifted programs give kids a way to reboot, express themselves and decompress. A well rounded student is going to grow up to be a benefit to their communities

1:58 [Jamilah Fraser]
Execution? The District is not eliminating SLAM we are reducing the program. I think its important to make sure we get the facts right so parents can be informed correctly!

[Helen] Ms. Fraser for clarity’s sake, I did not mean "execution" in the literal sense. To be blunt I do not think the District did a good job on summer school. It was a hugely expensive program where the District’s numbers on attendance were challenged by a number of teachers who taught SLAM. So when I said I was not a fan of SLAM’s execution, I meant the District didn’t do a good job on it.

1:58 [GW BUSH]
Your thoughts on Ackerman please…to me she seems like an idiot

2:02 [Guest]
It it would be nice for all comments to be posted!

2:05 [youngTeacher]
The teacher cuts they are talking about. Will they only be able to target non-tenured teachers?

2:05 [Jim M]
Yes and I heard they are going to give away the new West Philly High to a private corporation too.

[Helen] West Philadelphia High School is being restructured as a Promise Academy which means it remains under District control, but will have a radical restructuring of its staff.

2:06 [Dave]
Mr. Shoe: Kids in the suburbs get picked up by shiny yellow buses that usually drop them off at school on time. Who pays for that?

2:09 [Cecelia]
Helen: Do you have any idea as to what jobs/departments will be targeted at the Central Office? I think this needs to be disclosed. Is it the $30K job of someone who really needs to feed their family? The district needs to say what departments are being cut and by how many? And also state what positions will not be filled?

2:09 [single dad]
Mr. Shoe for papa of the year! Basically we single parents will have to "step up."

2:10 [Guest]
why does the superintendent make more than the mayor and governor combined?????

2:15 [single dad]
Is it true Vallas wasted a lot of money here?

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