This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Holly Otterbein for NewsWorks
Philadelphia’s public schools opened Monday with larger classes, missing programs, and 3,000 fewer employees. The School District is facing an unprecedented budget crisis after years of state and federal cutbacks, combined with rising pension and health-care costs.
District officials reported no major problems Monday. But on the ground level, the tight budget was already being felt throughout the city.
As upbeat middle-schoolers waited for class to start at the Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences, swapping summer stories in all-blue uniforms, teacher Amy Roat told them that this year was going to be different.
"We’re not opening the doors today till 8 a.m.," said Roat, an English-language instructor. "And we’re not going to have breakfast anymore in the cafeteria. You’re going to eat it during your advisory period."
The kids groaned.
And that was just the beginning. A sign Roat hung up outside of the school building outlined the staffing cuts in English and Spanish: From a guidance counselor to two math teachers to two science teachers, many will not be returning. A full-time music teacher and three part-time instrumental teachers won’t be here this year. A school office staffer, an assistant principal, and four safety employees are missing. Plus, students will lose 45 minutes of math instruction per day.
Parent Shahida Hicks knew about the School District’s budget problems. But she wasn’t expecting this.
"Math teachers? Science?" asked Hicks. "These are the most important things. Philadelphia has lost sight of what these kids need for their future."
Ray Porreca, a special-education teacher, said his students would also feel the pain. The Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences used to place children with disabilities into classrooms with other kids. But now there isn’t enough personnel to do it.
"It’s almost like we’re re-segregating in a way," said Porreca. "We’re telling these kids, ‘You have this special-ed label, and you need to live with it.’"
Inside the building, a long line of parents waited to register their kids for school and make other first-day requests.
Some said they had tried to call the school over the summer, but no one answered the phone. Budget cuts had left principals stranded during part of the break, with no secretaries to take calls.
Parent Ernell Meredith was dropping off paperwork Monday at the front office, which she said was clearly understaffed.
"They’re all running around like chickens with their heads cut off," she said.
A similar story played out in schools across the city. Many were missing full-time guidance counselors, assistant principals, music teachers, librarians and nurses. Others had to do without Advanced Placement classes. Some didn’t have enough desks.