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Countdown, Day 20: Schools bring back staff, but many can only afford aides

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

Less than three weeks left. The good news: Each school is staffed for student registration. Either a secretary who has been called back from layoff or a temp worker is at each school. Hours are 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on all weekdays but Wednesday, when the hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The bad news: Principals have been confronted with difficult personnel decisions, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that the $50 million accepted from the city last week with such fanfare is not going very far.

Schools received details about their additional staff allotments last Thursday. The District has so far declined to provide those details, but some facts are clear from information that principals have shared with staff and parents.

For instance, it is clear that not all schools will have full-time counselors. That is true even of high schools with college-bound students — what Superintendent William Hite said was a priority for him.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard confirmed that not every high school would have a counselor, but said that there were no "hard and fast numbers" that determined whether a school was allocated one or not. "It’s going to be a mix of looking at the size of the school, the need of the students, and using principals’ input," he said.

Based on interviews and communications that the Notebook has been receiving from school staff, only Promise Academies and schools with enrollments above 600-700 (there were differing reports) have so far been been allotted a counselor. Only schools with enrollments above 850 were allotted an assistant principal, according to information shared by principals.

It seems that the only consistency in the restoration is that all schools were allocated at least two noontime aides. Among the eight schools that the Notebook obtained staff allotment and resource information on, every school said they got two or more noontime aides; schools with multiple campuses received additional aides.

In addition to the aides and an allotted assistant principal or counselor for larger schools, schools got a pot of money (it’s not clear whether it was on the basis of enrollment or on enrollment and a combination of other factors) from which they could purchase addditional staff — counselor, assistant principal, aides — or use for books and supplies. But small schools did not get nearly enough to purchase an additional full-time professional, and they were not permitted to purchase part-time teaching positions. Most used the extra money for additional aides or supplies.

Gallard reiterated Tuesday that all schools would have "counseling services," but said that how that will work has not yet been finalized.

The current PFT contract, which expires Aug. 31, requires that each school have a counselor. But in June, that went out the window when 283 counselors were laid off.

"In terms of counseling resources, District guidelines determined that only schools with greater than 600 students would receive a counselor," wrote one principal of a small elementary school in an email to her staff last week. "As additional funding is released, this may change. I am hopeful that we will eventually be able to secure the services of [name withheld by the Notebook], who worked so closely with administration, teachers, parents, students."

One high school with fewer than 300 students received two noontime aides and $76,000, which the principal originally wanted to use to keep an innovative program, buy books and supplies, and get a part-time physical education teacher. However, the principal was told she couldn’t use the money for a part-time slot, so she decided to put it into books and equipment.

"Absolutely, the $50 million was not enough to get a counselor in every school," Gallard said. "I’ve said it, [Hite] said it. … Not every school that needs it will get a counselor or an assistant principal. That’s why we’re counting on $133 million in labor savings to put resources back in the schools.

"We want to bring everyone back, but we don’t have the money."

Robert McGrogan, president of the bargaining unit that represents principals and assistant principals, said that none of his laid-off members had yet been restored.

He said among the 127 laid off, about 100 have not retired or gotten other jobs and are still actively looking to return to District jobs.

"They still don’t know if they’ll be restored, when or how they’ll be notified, when they would start working, or where," he said.

He estimates that by what he’s seen so far in terms of allocations, perhaps 60 assistant principals will be rehired.

He warned that people should not think that the $50 million has solved many problems.

"If anybody feels we’re over the hump, they have an artificial sense of security," he said.

Gallard acknowledged that "even if we get the entire $304 million, schools won’t even be close to looking like what they looked like last year." One reason is that the figure doesn’t include $134 million in lost federal aid that won’t be replaced. To date, the District has been able to restore barely $80 million in cuts.

He said that the District would provide a detailed breakdown of how the $50 million is being spent by the end of the week.

The School District of Philadelphia faces an unprecedented situation – uncertainty over whether it will be in a position to open safe and functioning schools in September.

This feature, appearing each weekday, is an effort to highlight developments and motivate action as we get closer to the beginning of the school year. We encourage readers to send us information about both concerns and breakthroughs to countdown@thenotebook.org.