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Corbett to release $45 million that Pa. has been withholding; 400 jobs to be restored

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

[Updated 5:10 p.m.]

Gov. Corbett announced Wednesday that he would release the $45 million that the state had appropriated to the Philadelphia School District but had been withholding pending reforms, including in the teachers’ contract.

In a statement, Corbett said that he felt sufficient progress had been made in the operations of Philadelphia schools by the School Reform Commission and Superintendent William Hite to justify release of the funds.

Hite immediately said that he would restore 400 jobs.

“Superintendent Hite and the School Reform Commission are working to build a system of public schools that has adequate resources and has the policies in place for students and teachers to thrive. The reforms they are pursuing are critical to the district’s ability to better manage costs, ensuring that any new money that goes to the district gets spent on things that will improve the quality of education for students," Corbett said in a statement.

The governor was responding to a letter dated Oct. 15 that Hite sent to acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq.

Hite’s letter highlights his action in reducing the role of seniority in assigning and transferring teachers after some were recalled from layoffs this summer, as well as other steps the District has taken. Corbett’s administration had cited the elimination of seniority in teacher assignment as among the changes that it wanted the District to make.

Corbett’s budget secretary, Charles Zogby, said in an interview that no one action had precipitated the governor’s change of heart on the $45 million.

"It was an accummulation of the reforms," he said. He cited Hite’s decision to "call back personnel based on the best needs of the kids," but also other things, including long-term financial planning and the School Reform Commission’s suspension of the school code regarding charter enrollment, which allows for more predictable budgeting.

At a 1:30 p.m. press conference, Hite said that the District would be restoring 80 guidance counselors and some assistant principals, hiring back teachers to eliminate most split-grade classrooms (in which a teacher instructs students from two grades in the same classroom), and maintaining sports and instrumental music programs that had been restored for the fall semester only. Still, not all schools will have full-time counselors. He also said that some of the restored teaching positions would be to provide better services to students in special education, acknowledging that some special education students who were entitled to 1-on-1 aides had not been receiving that service.

Advocates had been calling on the state to release the $45 million, saying that Philadelphia children were being denied basic services over a political dispute about union rules.

"Withholding funding that provides for nurses, guidance counselors, libraries as leverage in a negotiation between adults raises real concerns about whether people are serious about meeting the needs of kids or playing lip service and political gamesmanship," said Susan Gobreski of Education Voters of Pennsylvania.

According to District budget documents, the number of school nurses has been cut from a peak of 325 three years ago to only 175 this fall. And there are no plans now to increase the number of school nurses, which are now allocated on the state-mandated basis of 1 per 1,500 students.

PFT president Jerry Jordan criticized Hite’s decision not to rehire all the counselors or increase the complement of nurses.

"We need to have all the counselors restored," he said. "And it’s very frightening if the District is taking the position, we don’t need to hire more nurses. Well, we do."

Outside criticism of the governor’s decision to withhold the $45 million escalated last week, especially after the asthma-related death of a child who attended a school without a full-time nurse brought national attention to the funding crisis in Philadelphia schools. Zogby said that his "heart goes out" to the girl’s family, but that the incident did not figure in the governor’s decision.

"These discussions have been ongoing," Zogby said. "We went into this [putting conditions on the funding] with the understanding that there was going to be a lot of pressure on the state and we were prepared for that going in."

What convinced Corbett to release the funds, Zogby said, was "the demonstration that the SRC and the superintendent were serious about the business of long-term reform and had taken sustainable, tangible actions around fiscal and operational controls. That was the driving force, not the noise coming from some of the other groups."

Under questioning, Hite acknowledged that he thought the absence of these funds up to now had been "detrimental" to students.

"The time that we haven’t had in schools with individuals with these resources, naturally that’s been detrimental," he said. "And we would have liked to begin the year this way. But nonetheless we don’t have to continue through the year this way, now we have the ability to add additional resources. And I must add, this does not return us to where we were a year ago. … The detrimental part of this is that we have children who are going through the process to select high schools who don’t have individuals in their schools to help them do that, and now we will be adding some of those individuals back." The same is true for students applying to college, he said.

"We’re thrilled with these resources. … We would have liked to have had them earlier, but we’re thrilled that they’re coming now."

Locally, most elected officials and advocates welcomed the news, though many emphasized the continued inadequacy of funding for Philadelphia schools and said harm had already been done.

Parents United for Public Education, an advocacy group that has helped collect more than 700 formal complaints from 50 schools to send to the state regarding the lack of services in schools, was not mollified by Corbett’s action.

Calling the SRC’s decision to pass such a bare-bones budget "irresponsible," the group said that the District’s level of funding is "not just a disgrace. It is dangerous and it is unsustainable. It has put children and families directly in harm’s way. … As parents, we will continue to file formal complaints with the state and will use all means at our disposal to demand that the state lives up to its responsibility to educate all of Philadelphia’s children."

The School District closed an enormous budget gap over the summer by making more than $250 million in budget cuts. Later, they restored about $83 million of those cuts, mostly with additional funds secured from and promised by the city. About 1,600 of the 3,800 staff laid off over the summer were rehired in August. When the school year started, the District’s staff was smaller by 3,000 than it was in June, many of those jobs lost through attrition.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Phila) said that he was "relieved" that the funds had been released, but added that schools still don’t have enough funding from the state.

National teachers’ union head Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, who recently had heightened her criticism of Corbett, said, "There should never have been a delay in the release of these funds. But thanks to the united voices of thousands of parents, students, teachers and community activists from Philadelphia and across the country, Gov. Corbett has finally done the right thing."

School officials had previously said that beefing up instructional staff and restoring the jobs of counselors, instrumental music teachers, and spring sports were priorities if more funds were secured. Restoring all 156 counselor positions that were cut from the operating budget would cost $17 million; bringing back spring sports and instrumental music for the whole year costs another $8 million. Eliminating the roughly 100 split-grade classes that were there at the opening of the school year would cost $11 million.

Notebook editor Paul Socolar contributed reporting.