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Frustrations mount as budget crisis wears on

The School Reform Commission is getting blowback from both teachers and advocates for charter expansion.

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

Update: A hearing in Commonwealth Court on the PFT’s challenge to the cancellation of its contract and the imposition of the health care changes will be held in Harrisburg on Dec. 10. The District is arguing to have a stay of the changes lifted.

For students, parents, and teachers, as well as the leadership of Philadelphia public schools, this fall has been a time of heightened uncertainty and bitter conflict.

After two years of drama about whether there is enough money to operate schools safely, the District is still not on sound financial footing. Its leaders have expended energy and political capital on extracting new revenue streams, but its victories have been hollow.

Newly enacted cigarette and sales taxes burden only Philadelphians, and they are still not enough.

The District is looking at another shortfall next year. Its best hope is that Gov.-elect Tom Wolf can make good his promise to increase state education spending and create a fairer way to distribute aid.

The funding debacle has helped the School Reform Commission make enemies of just about everyone. On the one side, it is at odds with its teachers after canceling their contract and requiring them to pay more for health benefits, which it did with little warning on Oct. 6. The SRC justified this action as necessary to reduce ongoing costs and put crucial resources back in schools.

On the other side, charter proponents, frustrated from a seven-year moratorium on creating new schools – the SRC said it can’t afford more charter growth – are ready to do battle over 40 new applications. In authorizing the city to impose a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to raise school revenues, the legislature ordered the SRC to reopen the charter pipeline and gave rejected hopefuls the right to a state appeal.

In all, the applications would represent more than 40,000 new seats. Twenty-nine of the 40 are from existing operators of charters.

Despite the long hiatus on new charters that aren’t turnaround schools, city charter enrollment continues to grow. This year it increased by about 2,000 to 62,467 students, while enrollment in District schools fell from 132,000 to under 128,000. Roughly 7,000 other students are in cyber charters.

Since 2011, charter costs have climbed from 18 percent to 31 percent of the District’s budget.

Through this turmoil, the movement to return the District to local control is gaining momentum, pushed by activist groups and the teachers’ union. A non-binding referendum to abolish the SRC will be on next spring’s city primary ballot, and Wolf has said he favors the idea.

At its monthly meetings, the SRC usually faces dozens of mostly hostile speakers. “Some of the lowest-performing seats in the District are the ones I’m looking at right now,” taunted teacher Mark Wilkens, staring at the five commissioners at their Nov. 20 meeting. They treat teachers “like enemies to be outwitted rather than allies to be led.”

The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools filed a court action accusing the SRC of violating the Sunshine Act when it held the Oct. 6 meeting with minimal public notice.

In invalidating the PFT contract and requiring teachers to pay into their health benefits – most members don’t do that now – SRC members said they acted reluctantly, although Chairman Bill Green often says that teachers must “sacrifice” like other District workers have.

New commissioner Marjorie Neff, a recently retired District principal, said in a commentary for the Notebook that she agreed with the teachers that voiding the contract was “unfair.”

But there’s “unfair,” and then there’s “injustice,” she said.

“People of good will can disagree about whether requiring teachers and staff to contribute to health insurance premiums is the fair or right thing to do,” she wrote. “But there can be no argument that denying children basic conditions for learning is an injustice.”

She added: “In a fair world, teachers would be paid much more and the SRC would have voted to affirm that. Unfortunately, we had to make a decision in the world we actually live in, with the resources we actually have.”

More red ink

Despite the new funding streams, the District’s deficit for 2015-16 is projected at $71 million without drastic reductions in ongoing personnel costs. District officials said the savings from benefit changes would allow them to put as much as $44 million back into schools, many of which started the year lacking extracurricular activities, adequate instructional materials, and basic supplies.

Whether the action will go through is unresolved; the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers took the SRC to court and won a temporary stay. An appeal of the stay will be heard in Commonwealth Court, but as of late November, no date was set. The District had budgeted for benefits savings to start kicking in on Dec. 15.

Even so, the District redirected an initial installment of $15 million to schools. How much actual savings may be realized depends on the court decision. Between that and possibly inflated estimates of cigarette tax revenues, there are concerns about keeping this year’s budget in balance.

Green said at the SRC meeting on Nov. 20 that the District still hoped for a negotiated settlement with the teachers.

“The School District is in ongoing communications with the PFT, and we continue to seek an appropriate negotiated resolution,” District spokesperson Fernando Gallard said.

PFT president Jerry Jordan was asked if there were ongoing negotiations.

“No,” he said.

The District faces further budget uncertainty due to the pressure to approve additional charters. The SRC has 45 days to hold hearings on the 40 new applications. It recruited educators and academics as volunteers to review them all and passed a resolution specifying that only one commissioner, or even a designee, need be present at each hearing.

At that November meeting, a parade of speakers implored the SRC to approve more charters. Typical was parent Elaine Wells of Boys’ Latin, who accused the SRC of “a war against better options” for families.

Wolf’s promises

It is still unclear whether Wolf can fulfill his promise to raise taxes to send to school districts and convince the legislature to enact a fairer education funding formula. Wolf will be facing a more Republican General Assembly than Gov. Corbett, whom he defeated, and one that just elected more conservative leadership.

Wolf won in part because inadequate education funding under Corbett became a statewide issue. Six districts outside Philadelphia, along with advocacy groups and parents, filed a lawsuit Nov. 10 against the state for failing to provide each child with a constitutionally mandated “thorough and efficient” education.

Meanwhile, a legislative panel, the Basic Education Funding Commission, charged with devising a fair, predictable education funding formula, has been traveling the state gathering data and testimony.

It sat in Philadelphia on Nov. 18 and 19 and listened to everyone from religious leaders to charter operators lament the consequences of insufficient resources for city students.

One witness presented evidence that the state’s funding system discriminates by race. Data analyst David Mosenkis, affiliated with the faith-based group POWER, shared his scatter plot showing that under the current system, virtually all-White districts get more money per student than equally poor but more diverse districts.

Afterward, commission chair Sen. Pat Browne of Allentown said that he felt an obligation to make sure that Philadelphia gets an equitable share of state aid “to reflect the needs of its students in traditional and charter schools.” But he also stressed that the commission had to come up with something politically palatable.

Due to the fiscal chaos, Fitch Ratings in October downgraded the District’s bond rating, which officials said would have little practical effect. But Fitch analyst Eric Friedman summed up the situation, telling the Inquirer that the city’s public schools “are facing a number of challenges, and there’s no solution immediately in sight.”

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