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Despite parent, teacher pleas, City Council still not moved on District budget woes

Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.

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

by Bill Hangley Jr.

Day two of City Council’s education hearings was a long string of bleak predictions and passionate calls for funding from public school supporters faced with the prospect of what one parent called “trying to do the impossible with nothing.”

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell called the day’s testimony “disheartening,” but gave little indication that she and her colleagues are eager to move on meeting the Philadelphia School District’s request for $60 million in additional funding.

“The governor cut all this money,” said Blackwell, a co-chair of Council’s education committee, who along with Council President Darrell Clarke presided over the day’s testimony. “These people think that was our agenda, and it wasn’t. And they think we can solve everything, and we can’t. … We’re all of us victims, all of us at the local level, of an agenda and a budget that we didn’t create.”

District officials are planning to reduce school budgets to unprecedented minimums unless the state, city and the teachers’ union collectively come up with $300 million in cash or contract concessions.

But with neither state nor local officials showing any appetite to find new funding, and the union staying mum about its ongoing negotiations, Blackwell said the situation appears deadlocked. The community’s fears are entirely justified, she said, but Council still won’t raise taxes.

“They don’t see it from our side,” she said, adding that Council leadership will soon go into “closed session” with the mayor to keep talking. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Over five hours, one speaker after another told Council that the District’s budget plans would leave their schools virtually helpless, confirming Superintendent William Hite’s assertion that his current budget would render schools unable to deliver a basic education.

The parade of over 60 witnesses included veteran education advocates like Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education (“we arrived here by a string of conscious choices”), parent Cecelia Thompson (“please don’t let children suffer because of adult mismanagement”) and community organizer Venard Johnson (“if we can’t guarantee equity across the board, let’s just shut the whole thing down”).

Setback for the city

But most of the day’s speakers weren’t School Reform Commission regulars. They included parents, residents, students, teachers, and principals from such schools as Masterman, Moffet, Hopkinson, McCall, Science Leadership Academy, and Meredith – a broad swath of Philadelphians predicting not only terrible outcomes for schools, but a major setback for a city seeking to build on unprecedented growth by retaining young people and families.

One was Robert Petrone, a District parent and an assistant district attorney, who called the SRC’s bare-bones budget a “de facto closing” of all Philadelphia public schools. “Imagine if you will, City Hall with just the mayor and the 17 members of City Council. No secretaries, no support staff, no aides of any kind,” he said, to a wave of applause. “How well would you be able to serve the public under these conditions?”

Another was Elizabeth Taylor, a history teacher at Masterman and parent of District students. “The implosion of the District would irreparably harm our city and our children,” she said “At my school, arguably one of the most privileged, the budget cuts will look like this: no books, no paper, no clubs, no counselors, no secretaries, and six and a half fewer teachers. Is that really an acceptable educational experience? If you sent your child to my school next year, there’d be no one to answer the phone.”

Aleisia Jones, vice president of the Gompers Elementary Home and School Association, said she appreciated Council’s aversion to granting the District a “blank check.” But she said the last few years of cuts have already left the school threadbare, with parents picking up the slack. “We tutor, we donate our own funds, we create programming,” she said. “We can’t do more than we already are.”

The threat to the city’s modest growth trend was a major theme. Robert Levin, a real estate agent, said, “I see the schools as the most important economic development tool the city has. Great schools are magnets for young professionals. … What would Society Hill be without McCall? Queen Village without Meredith? University City without Penn Alexander?”

Katie Kelly, a Meredith Elementary parent, said that if Hite’s budget is enacted as is, the city’s recent boom could easily go bust. “This will all end if young families cannot raise their children in Philadelphia due to a lack of public schools,” she said. “Please, please, please don’t make me move to the suburbs.”

Blackwell agreed that the situation threatens to derail the recent growth trends, which have dramatically changed her West Philadelphia district.

“It really is an economic development issue,” she said. “Those people who said this could force young people not to move into the city – they told the truth. You can’t afford send your kids to private school or even Catholic school and buy a great house, too. I live in University City, and people say, ‘I can’t move here and pay for an education. I can move here if my kid goes to Penn Alexander.’ They can’t afford both.”

Don’t tax liquor, don’t tax soda

Mayor Nutter has said he supports the District’s quest for $60 million more, but Blackwell threw cold water on his latest proposal to raise about $20 million by increasing the liquor-by-the-drink tax. “That’s a big labor fight, and that’s why it’s always failed,” Blackwell said. “I don’t know if he’s going to get that again.”

She likewise rejected the notion of a sugared-drink tax, but said that Council leadership will work with the mayor to see what else could be found. “I wish we could tax something like tobacco or the casinos or something, a kind of sin tax – not the little neighborhood bars, because those are small businesses,” she said.

For the mayor’s part, spokesman Mark McDonald confirmed that the schools shouldn’t plan on any windfalls from increased tax monies. Nascent efforts by former interim District leader Thomas Knudsen and the city’s revenue department to collect more delinquent taxes are not likely to bear fruit in time for next year, McDonald said.

“In terms of property taxes, what we have proposed is collecting the same amount [next year] that we’re collecting for fiscal 2013,” he said. Even if the higher liquor tax rate is passed, the city would still only be one-third of the way to meeting the District’s $60 million dollar goal.

“There’s a lot of ideas that are being discussed,” McDonald said.

Meanwhile, even as witnesses urged Council to find a solution to the immediate budget crisis, many argued for a return to the state funding formula that allocated money to districts based on a number of factors, including poverty, tax base, and special needs of students.

Among them was Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who said that Gov. Corbett effectively wiped out the formula, which was developed under former governor Ed Rendell, just as it was beginning to bear fruit for Philadelphia. Now, Jordan said, “Some schools aren’t even funded enough to support their curricula. CAPA has had to cancel its annual [musical] performance – a performing arts academy, with no performing arts showcase. That’s what’s happening today.”

Like many, Jordan called for a return to local control of schools. “For 13 years, everything that’s been tried by the SRC to correct our finances has driven us further into debt, and further away from quality education,” he said.

Darren Spielman, head of the Philadelphia Education Fund , likewise called for a more rational school funding formula. So did Miles Wilson, head of the Great Schools Compact, and Carolyn Adams, board president of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Attach conditions to funds

And like several other witnesses, Adams also urged Council to attach special conditions to funding, in order to ensure that the new dollars are spent wisely. “We believe new funds should be conditioned on at least maintaining the current levels of arts instruction, sports and extracurricular activities,” as well as school nurses, Adams said. She also recommended that funding be used as a lever in ongoing teachers’ union contract talks, “to permit site-selection hiring in every school.”

And while many witnesses agreed that Council had reason to be skeptical of a district whose funding woes have been chronic, virtually all called on Council to find a way to do something – anything – to break the deadlock and head off disaster.

Towards the day’s end, Alison Stuart, a teacher at McCall, had to hold back tears as she described the impact that Hite’s budget would have on her school, citing the numbers of Asian students from nearby Chinatown who badly need extra help. “They already feel so alienated during the first year,” she said. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In this case, cry.”

Only one witness declined to ask Council to come up with more money – Bertha Simmons, a resident who called on the city to bring back prayer in schools. “Everybody needs a prayer,” she said. “The schools need a prayer.”

It was a request unwittingly echoed by Blackwell when she was asked what hope she had to offer those who fear that Hite’s “grim” budget will come to pass.

“There’s always hope. I live by faith, as they say, not by sight,” Blackwell said. “We have to believe in people, believe that through it all, some positive suggestions will come out of it. So we’ll work towards that end.”

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