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Coalition reacts to Hite’s plan

Photo: Bill Hangley, Jr.

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

Members of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), a group that includes the city’s teachers’ union, say that despite the many promising proposals in Superintendent William Hite’s newly released plan for the Philadelphia School District, the numbers don’t add up.

The coalition responded to Hite’s new plan by reiterating its request for a temporary halt to 37 proposed school closures and by calling for a concerted push by District leaders to secure additional funding for public schools.

Coalition member Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, rejected Hite’s proposal to secure significant additional savings through labor concessions in upcoming contract talks.

“What is the expression? If you want to pay peanuts, get some monkeys,” Jordan said.

The current contract expires in August.

PCAPS members praised Hite for providing a thoughtful, detailed document that considered community input. They spoke approvingly of such strategic priorities as strengthening the curriculum, expanding early childhood education, improving special education and programs for English language learners, and providing more targeted interventions for troubled students.

However, they expressed skepticism about the savings that school closings will provide.

“Dr Hite is sounding incredibly reasonable, and everything that he puts forth as far as school closings sounds nice. But when you get past the reasonable talking points, the numbers don’t make sense,” said Anne Gemmel, political director at Fight for Philly and a PCAPS member. “We need additional investment, and there are revenue solutions at the state and city level that should be a priority for the city and the District.”

Gemmel said that the projected $28 million in savings from 37 proposed closures won’t amount to much — about 1 percent of the current deficit — even in the best-case scenario. What’s more, she said, transition costs — such as the cost of new transportation and safety measures for transitioning students, and the cost of maintaining and selling unused buildings — will most likely eat up much of the projected savings.

District officials said in response that they won’t back off the closure plan.

“The District believes that the recommendations for school closures is the best path towards financial sustainability and academic growth,” said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard in a statement. “We cannot afford to waste further resources on empty seats. We need to place those resources into the classroom.”

Hite, however, has also acknowledged that funding is a challenge the District should address. Hite’s plan notes that the District has become a “bare bones” operation in part because of “historically low levels of state education funding,” and notes that 88 percent of teachers cite “inadequate funds” at the school level as a major obstacle to academic success. The report names “seek additional revenues” as the fifth of six financial goals.

Jordan said either savings or increased funding will be necessary if Hite is to deliver the many improvements proposed in his new plan. “We can’t put in art and music. We can’t provide safety for all children, using an austerity budget,” Jordan said.

But he showed no appetite for wage or benefit cuts for union members.

“Philadelphia’s teachers are paid 13 percent lower than the teachers in the surrounding districts. So I don’t think that’s a place we should be even looking for savings,” Jordan said. “I’m certainly not talking about concessions. That deficit was not created by the teachers and other employees of the school district. That deficit was created by the state-appointed SRC.”

Instead, Jordan says, savings can come from reining in projected charter school expansion. “If you look at the school district’s five-year budget plan, there is an increase of over $300 million over the next four years … to expand charter schools in the city. That $300 million can go into our traditional public schools,” Jordan said. Although Hite plans continued charter conversions of low-performing schools, he said in an interview Friday that he feels charter enrollment in Philadelphia had reached a “saturation point.”

Gemmel said PCAPS is pleased that Hite will continue to sample public opinion about his plan, which lacks a timeline for implementation of its many proposed priorities. District officials call it a “living document” that can change.

“It’s wonderful that [Hite is] going to take community input — that’s what was missing from the BCG plan,” said Gemmel, referring to the Boston Consulting Group’s recommendations for District reform, released in the spring. “The PCAPS coalition is waiting to see how much input we can have.”

PCAPS members know they have an uphill battle where increased funding is concerned. Asked about the political support for the PCAPS plan, Jordan said, “I don’t know, and we won’t know until we all go there and demand.”

During the weeks to come, the coalition will be organizing community members to testify at the District’s upcoming neighborhood-based meetings on the proposed closures. They also plan to lobby elected officials to back their call for a temporary halt to closures until a “community impact” analysis is done for each.

PCAPS also hopes City Council will soon consider a resolution supporting a temporary halt to the closure plan — a symbolic measure to be sure, given Council’s lack of direct authority over the District, but one PCAPS hopes would encourage Mayor Michael Nutter and others to more aggressively pursue additional revenue. PCAPS members believe that significant funding opportunities are available that could eliminate the need for the full slate of closures, including local tax reform and an effort to step up collections of unpaid real estate taxes. PCAPS cites reports that as much as $500 million is uncollected.

And although additional money is important, PCAPS also wants to change the basic frame of the debate.

“I’m tired of the conversation, as a parent, of ‘how much less can your kids do with?’” said Gemmel. “I want to have the conversation about how our elected leaders [are] going to do the hard work of finding the revenue that our kids deserve. That’s where we’re trying to push this conversation – away from an austerity frame, into an investment conversation.”

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