This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As the Philadelphia School District prepared to open for the 2013-14 school year, teachers scoured for usable desks that they could stuff into classrooms with, in some cases, 40 or more students.
Some even contemplated bringing in spare chairs from home.
“We have a lot more students and fewer staff members,” said Barbara Keating, head of the English department at South Philadelphia High School. “Classes are going to be much larger than what we’re used to here, so there is a lot of scrambling to find enough desks, and desks that are usable.”
Southern is expected to more than double in size due to an influx of students from Bok Technical High School, which was among 24 schools that were closed down last spring.
Southern is not alone. Roxborough High School is getting students from Germantown, also closed. Enrollment is expected to jump from about 500 to 680 students.
Roxborough teacher Heidi Rochlin is expecting 41 students in her Algebra 1 class.
But that’s not the half of it.
“Last year we had three counselors, this year we have none,” said Rochlin, who also teaches music. “There is no assistant principal and just one discipline dean.” Last year, there were two deans and an assistant principal.
“We’re a little bit nervous the principal is not going to be able to do it all by herself, welcoming the students from Germantown and meeting their needs,” Rochlin said.
Ideally, the widespread closures, which displaced some 10,000 students, would have led to significant new resources for the schools that are receiving students, like Southern and Roxborough. But the extra assistance has been minimal, teachers, parents and principals say.
While the District has rarely in its history had money to spare, it has never faced such a deep financial crisis.
It is also starting the year without a contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The School Reform Commission is asking the PFT take huge pay cuts and give up cherished rights like seniority,
all amid legal uncertainties over whether it can simply impose terms on the union if no agreement is reached.
Since 2011, the District has cut its personnel by 28 percent – eliminating 3,000 positions in two of the last three years – and has closed some 30 schools. During that same period, enrollment in District-run schools has declined more slowly, by about 18 percent, to about 134,000.
The District now spends about a third of its $2.7 billion budget on debt service and charter school costs.
“I don’t think anybody imagined we would be where we are with education funding,” said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education adviser. “We are in unforeseen territory.”
To close a $304 million gap between its needs and what it has to spend, the District has laid off thousands of workers and prepared to open schools with deep shortages of key personnel like counselors, librarians, assistant principals, aides, and nurses – not to mention supplies, equipment, and books.
Split classes – putting students from different grades in the same classroom to save teacher costs – are back. Safety plans for students traveling to their new schools are spotty.
Parents wondered if children will get legally mandated special education services. Without counselors, were schools equipped to handle mental health crises?
There were few answers.
Superintendent William Hite more than once has called the District’s financial situation untenable and catastrophic.
But he and members of the School Reform Commission have also stuck to their plan of not budgeting any money they cannot be certain of receiving. Having fallen short in their request to the state and the city for $180 million in additional funds, they gave the teachers’ union a stark choice: Take pay and benefit cuts, or work in severely understaffed schools.
“I don’t know of any time when Philadelphia or any district that I’m aware of has been forced to cut employees down to numbers we’re talking about to operate schools,” said Michael Churchill, who is of counsel to the Public Interest Law Center (PILCOP). “The system is as close to bare bones, with nothing left standing, as any situation that I’ve heard of.”
Parents, students, and advocates have held protest after protest for more funding and complain that the District’s requests have been too feeble. City leaders kicked in about $78 million, but are at odds over how to raise $50 million of it. Gov. Corbett’s response was a cobbled-together funding package that relies primarily on city money and is laden with conditions. It also doesn’t meet the District’s needs this year – and, according to Churchill and others, not for the future.
A coalition of unions and advocacy groups marched through Center City in August to press the city and state to give more funds to Philadelphia schools. (Photo: Harvey Finkle)
In addition to more city and state funds, the District asked the PFT to agree to $103 million in concessions in the name of “shared sacrifice.” It is seeking $30 million from other unions.
The District wants teachers to take salary cuts averaging 10 percent, give up automatic raises for longevity and additional degrees, and pay into health benefits. Philadelphia teachers already, for the most part, earn less than their suburban counterparts for what is arguably a more difficult job. Salaries and benefits can be competitive up to about the 10th year of teaching experience, depending on the degrees teachers have, but after that, they fall far behind.
PFT president Jerry Jordan said the union would agree to a one-year pay freeze and benefit changes, but not deep pay reductions.
Negotiations continued into September without resolution. “Now, the negotiations are to find money to bring more people back into the schools,” said Shorr.
By the opening of school, the District had secured just $83 million toward its goal of $304 million in revenues and savings. The state appropriated another $45 million, but – in an unprecedented move – is withholding it, awaiting union concessions.
The District also wants huge changes in teacher work rules – which state officials have set as a prerequisite for the additional state money. Besides seeking a longer day, they want to gut seniority rights when it comes to teacher assignments and layoffs.
How teachers are placed in schools has long been an issue in Philadelphia. At one time, new teachers chose where they would teach, and then could transfer to other openings based on seniority. Now the District has partial site selection, in which some, but not all, vacancies are filled at the school level by principals and leadership teams. Most schools officially choose teachers through site selection, but only if the openings are filled before a certain date. The District wants all vacancies to be filled that way.
PFT president Jerry Jordan argues that site selection so far has not solved the problem of understaffing in high-needs schools, and doubts that full site selection will change that.
The District is backed in its demand by a coalition of advocates who say this change is necessary to help stem the exodus to charter schools and remain viable. Charters are able to build their teams and often present to families a sense of mission that is absent in District-run schools, they say.
Moving to full site selection enables building leadership “to choose who works there and think about ways in which the assignment of teachers is more aligned to student needs,” said Donna Cooper of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. Her organization is part of the Coalition for Effective Teaching, which also includes the United Way and the NAACP.
Cooper said it is unfortunate that this is being sought at the same time as teachers are being asked to take huge cuts in compensation, which she opposes.
“You are asking people who have extraordinarily hard jobs to make financial sacrifices that will make the District less successful,” she said. But she said not reforming seniority rules now “will just continue practices that don’t serve students well.”
Younger teachers are also union members, she said, “and they are often harmed as much as older teachers are protected by seniority. There are consequences in terms of keeping young, inspired, talented teachers in the District, enabling them to compete openly for jobs.”
Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a national authority on the teacher workforce, agrees that a strict seniority system can disadvantage younger teachers. He says unions could empower their members by creating teacher committees in schools that help with hiring and evaluation. “That’s what professions do,” he said.
But in his view, the District is asking for too much while offering teachers nothing at all in negotiations.
“It’s a one-way street,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s any doubt it will have negative consequences.”
With the District in such turmoil, it may be hard to keep good teachers around.
Karen Thomas, principal of Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in Manayunk, spent part of her summer listening to talented but frustrated young teachers talk of leaving.
“Everybody’s looking to get out,” she said. “The scariest ones are the young teachers who’ve been teaching two, three, four, five years, who say ‘I’m just going to go get an MBA and get out of this business.’ And some of them are phenomenal teachers. … They’re going to leave the profession because they’re sick of it. … They’re tired of the politics.”
Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks contributed reporting.