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5 things to know about the District’s decision to open schools on time

Photo: Kevin McCorry/NewsWorks WHYY

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

Flanked by four members of the School Reform Commission, Superintendent William Hite announced Friday morning that Philadelphia schools would open on time Sept. 8, but that another round of "difficult and hopefully temporary" cuts would be made to narrow the District’s $81 million deficit.

Here are five key points about the School District’s latest plan for dealing with its budget gap.

1. Temporary cuts and budget adjustments totaling $32 million were announced. These include discontinuing TransPasses for 7,500 high school students who live less than two miles from school, eliminating 300 slots in alternative programs for students at risk of dropping out, making 27 more elementary schools share police officers, reducing school cleaning and repairs, cutting extra professional development time at the District’s Promise Academies, and eliminating some administrative positions. "These are cuts we want to treat as temporary," Hite said. "We want to restore them."

2. The District is still counting on state approval and implementation of a $2-per-pack, Philadelphia-only cigarette tax by Oct. 1, which would generate a projected $49 million this year. In seeking revenue for its current fiscal year, Hite said that was the District’s focus.

3. The District is dropping its demands that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers make wage concessions, but insisting that the union offer benefits concessions to allow for the restoration of cuts. Hite did not put a dollar amount on benefits savings he seeks, but said the District is looking for "substantially more than what’s been offered" by the PFT at the bargaining table. As for the work-rule changes that the District has called for and the PFT has balked at, Hite said, "some of the work rule changes are extremely important to us," and so "it’s a process of negotiations."

4. There are no mass layoffs now; cuts will result in only about 20 layoffs of District staff, mostly in the central office. Additionally, some vacant positions of police officers and others are not being filled. And the $2.2 million in cuts to alternative programs will almost certainly force the outside providers of those programs to lay off teaching staff. Hite said the layoff picture would worsen if the hoped-for cigarette tax revenues and labor savings don’t happen soon: "We will be forced in mid-October to cut into school budgets."

5. Hite cited multiple reasons for rejecting the much-discussed idea of a delayed opening of schools: Because the District wants to avoid "the loss of classroom time for students;" because many salaries and contracts would have to be paid anyway; and because a delayed opening could cost the District if it caused a new flow of students from District into charter schools. Hite also cited assurances from Gov. Corbett and legislative leaders that the state will approve the cigarette tax.

Superintendent Hite’s statement:

Today, just three weeks from school opening, we once again find ourselves having to make unbelievably tough choices. As we announced more than a month ago, we have an $81 million shortfall in our current year budget, which must be closed through additional revenues or cost reductions.

For the sake of minimizing disruptions for families and for the sake of educating children, we have made the decision to make a series of additional difficult – and, hopefully, temporary – cuts in order to open schools on time.

In reaching this decision, we focused primarily on the hardship that not opening schools on time would create for students and families – most importantly, the loss of classroom time for students. As a school district, our priority is maximizing the opportunity for student learning. To delay school opening – during which time we would be required to continue paying employees, make our charter school payments, and meet other contract costs, all while students are not being educated – punishes students for adult failures.

We also took into account the fact that delaying school opening until we have more certainty about additional revenues potentially could further exacerbate our deficit if, for example, additional students exited to charter schools.

Finally, we considered the public assurances we have received from the Governor and the House Majority Leader that they will do everything they can to ensure that the cigarette tax authorizing legislation is passed when the General Assembly returns next month. We appreciate the ongoing support and leadership of the Philadelphia delegation and the Mayor in this effort.

Weighing all of these factors, we determined that opening on time with these further cuts was the least harmful decision for students and families. Accordingly, we are implementing the following service reductions:

• High school students who live within two miles of school will not receive transportation support (an increase from 1.5 miles). As a result, approximately 7,500 students at District, charter, and non-public schools will no longer receive transportation support.
• Approximately 300 students will be impacted by reduced services in the multiple pathways to graduation programs, which will result in fewer higher-quality options for students.
• Elimination of preparation and professional development before school opening for teachers at some of our most challenged schools, the Promise Academies.
• Schools will be cleaned less frequently and have access to fewer cleaning supplies; repairs at schools will be delayed.
• The District will leave school police officer vacancies unfilled, reducing the overall number of officers available to support school climate and safety.
• Additional departmental staffing reductions will result in reduced direct support for schools and families. Details regarding these reductions will be announced as we work through a process with our staff.

We are also assuming – and these are high-risk assumptions – that we will be able to negotiate lower pricing with key vendors, realize significant revenues from additional building sales, and keep our charter school payments manageable though state payments solely for authorized enrollment levels.

As we cut so deeply into our core functions, we again implore our funders and several labor unions to help prevent further harm to our schools and our students’ educational experience.

We implore our state legislators to quickly enact the Philadelphia-only cigarette tax, which is expected to generate approximately $49 million this year if implemented by October 1st. Each month of delay in authorizing this tax results in the loss of millions of dollars of revenue.

We implore the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) to make concessions in line with those already made by principals, blue-collar workers and non-represented staff. We are not seeking across-the-board wage reductions from the PFT, but rather benefits changes that would enable us to restore essential services to schools.

If the state and the PFT do not find a way to close what remains of the $81 million gap after the cuts announced today, we will be forced in mid-October to cut into school budgets, which can only mean increased class sizes and an increase in combined or “split” classes.

To be clear, filling our $81 million gap will only allow the District to return the inadequate and insufficient resources schools had last year. To make transformative investments in our schools, we need both new recurring revenues, including a fair funding formula at the state level and responsible cost restructuring, and overdue reforms to our employee benefits structure.

Adults have the power to make right the wrong being done to our students and schools. Providing all children with a rich, high-quality education is not only a basic right, but a moral obligation. I am hopeful that all Philadelphians will join the District in pursuing what is best for students.

Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski gave a brief presentation on the District’s budget gap, cigarette tax revenue projections, and the details of the $32 million in cuts.

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