This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Dale Mezzacappa for the Notebook and Holly Otterbein for NewsWorks
With new money for Philadelphia schools coming in at a trickle, even though schools are just six weeks from opening under a doomsday scenario, Superintendent William Hite said Friday that he believes the District has enough funds on hand to restore the positions of 220 secretaries for the upcoming school year — one for each school — as well as fall sports and 66 itinerant music teachers through January.
At a contentious four-hour School Reform Commission meeting that started at 8 a.m., Hite and his chief financial officer, Matthew Stanski, said they were confident that they could increase by $33 million their bare-bones budget. The budget resulted in 3,800 layoffs and stripped schools of nearly everything but a principal and a core of teachers. But the District leaders said that, as of now, they can count on only $17 million in additional funds from the city and state.
The rest, Stanski said, was eked out through identifying further savings in the budget passed at the end of May.
"To give you an example … [we’ll] go after vendors who we feel like owe us money for poor service or overbilling or things like that," Stanski said.
Hite said that his priority is opening schools in September with as little disruption as possible.
"I want to point out that everything we do from this point forward is focused on opening schools and using the resources we have to meet the needs of students," Hite said. "We plan to use revenue we believe is available to get schools ready."
Stanski said the $33 million breaks down this way: $17.6 million for the secretaries and expenses of summer reorganization; $3.9 million for the music teachers, and $3.7 million for athletics (to pay for coaches, most of whom are teachers earning extracurricular money; referees; transportation; and equipment). The balance, $7.8 million, will be invested in the District’s internal turnaround initiative, the Promise Academies — although the SRC engaged in a lengthy debate over how to evaluate, refine, and improve the model.
Hite said that he decided to use the extra aid to bring back secretaries because principals identified them as being vital to getting schools open in September.
"The principals said they need one secretary to make sure students are registered, rostered and safely placed," he said. "Principals said this function is extremely important."
Many larger schools used to have more than one secretary, but only one per school is being restored.
Likewise, Hite said he chose to restore music and sports because students see them as invaluable.
"The students … indicated this was important to them as part of what makes school school," the superintendent said.
In particular, Hite said he was influenced by a group of students that organized a protest against budget cuts at the District’s headquarters in May. The students requested a meeting with him after the rally, and later “declared themselves my advisory group,” Hite said.
Not yet restored are other crucial positions, including counselors and assistant principals, as well as nearly 2,000 paraprofessionals and aides who monitor the lunchroom and help keep order in school hallways.
Hite said that the principals emphasized that it was important to get their own secretaries back because they know the community, the students, and the families. However, that is not guaranteed.
The District laid off 307 secretaries altogether, and is calling back 220. Some head secretaries have retired or resigned, Hite said, creating vacancies that must be filled according to seniority. Secretaries, who are members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, can apply to transfer to other schools, which could set off a chain reaction of movement.
"Where we can return secretaries to their school, that is our intent," Hite said. "That is part of our conversation with the PFT." As he sees it, he said, what’s happening now "is not about who gets to transfer," but making sure schools have people present who know students and families to make school opening as smooth as possible under the circumstances.
Philadelphia this year faced an unprecedented funding shortfall of more than $300 million. Although the District asked for $180 million in additional combined city and state funds, a package cobbled together in Harrisburg resulted in about $127 million in new funds, and most of that is contingent on achieving significant contract reforms with its teachers’ union. The District is also counting on saving $133 million in labor costs. Negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers are ongoing, and the contract doesn’t expire until the week before school opens.
Joan Taylor, a teacher at West Philadelphia’s Middle Years Alternative School, asked the School Reform Commission to resign in protest because the state did not meet the School District’s funding request.
“Will you, the most powerful people here, stand up for equitable education funding by refusing to be complicit to the injustice we have foisted upon the children we’re supposed to protect?” she said. “This is not a rhetorical question. You need to get on the right side of history."
Hite said he expected the SRC to hold more special meetings before school opens as the financial situation changes. The budget will need to be amended by the SRC at some point.
Check the Notebook site for further reporting on the meeting