This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In what has become an increasingly rare occurrence, Philadelphia schools started off this year with a small financial cushion, allowing them to update and upgrade technology and materials, repair buildings, and partially replenish depleted staffing categories such as counselors and nurses.
On the first day of school, Superintendent William Hite emphasized new investments of $440 million over the next five years for such things as technology and curricular materials.
“I’m proud to say that the School District begins this year in its strongest position since I became superintendent,” said Hite in his back-to-school video address.
For the first time since he arrived in 2012, Hite said, he is able to focus on expanding opportunity for students instead of slashing programs.
But even with the improved financial picture, the District is facing critical issues regarding staffing, especially teachers. The biggest is the continuing stalemate with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers over a new contract, an impasse that has continued for four years. During that time, teachers have received no raises, which has depressed morale and made it harder to recruit.
Still, it hired 700 new teachers over the summer – in line with expected turnover rates, given the total of more than 8,000 teachers – and opened schools in September with fewer vacancies than in previous years.
Among the new hires are additional art and music teachers, whose positions were slashed at the height of the budget-cutting frenzy brought on by reduced state and federal aid under former Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration.
The District said it hired more than 20 new music teachers this year and now has a total of 223. It also hired 20 new art teachers, for a total of 201. Now, just 12 schools lack art and music classes, according to Lee Whack in the District communications office.
Counselor and nurse positions were also decimated at the height of the cuts. Hite announced that the goal this year was to have a full-time counselor and nurse in every school.
District spokesman Lee Whack said as of October that there is one remaining nurse vacancy in District schools and one counselor vacancy, for which a bilingual English-Spanish person was being sought.
The District also seems to have gotten a handle on the unprecedented substitute-teacher crisis that followed the controversial decision to outsource subs in an effort to save money and increase a lackluster “fill rate” when the District handled substitute placement itself and the subs were members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Instead, the substitute crisis came close to ruining the last school year for many schools. Under contractor Source4Teachers, subs were scarce and teachers were forced to fill in for absent colleagues, wreaking havoc with schedules. In fact, the District’s small fund balance this year is in part due to the money it saved by not having to pay Source4Teachers the full cost under its performance-based contract.
This year, with new contractor Kelly Services, fill rates in the first weeks of school neared 70 percent, and there were fewer complaints from schools. Last year under Source4Teachers, the District’s fill rate in September was an abysmal 17 percent. “We have been thrilled to get subs every time we’ve had a teacher call out,” said principal Laura Shubilla of Building 21, a small, project-based school in North Philadelphia that is part of the District’s Innovation Network.
During the first two-and-a-half months of the 2015-16 school year, Building 21 received a sub just 6 percent of the time it requested one. In fact, so far this school year, Building 21 has covered more absent teacher days (3) than it did in the entire run-up to winter break last year (2).
In weeks one and two of the new school year, the District reported substitute teacher fill-rates of 63 and 68 percent respectively. That means a substitute teacher was provided roughly 7 out of 10 times that a Philadelphia school requested one.
Those are relatively poor numbers compared to surrounding suburban school districts, but they represent a massive improvement for Philadelphia. Under Source4Teachers, the rate never climbed above 49 percent.
“We acknowledge that we had to do a better job from last year, and that’s why we decided to change firms,” said District spokesman Kevin Geary. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from principals so far.”
But although the District has averted a crisis by changing contractors, it is still not improving significantly on the disappointing “fill rate” before it took the step to outsource, which was around 60 percent. Nor is it likely to see huge savings, which was another rationale for hiring an outside firm. The cost of the Kelly contract – $42 million over two years – is about $8 million more a year than the one with Source4Teachers. Kelly is paying the subs more this year, about the same as they were getting paid when they were part of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
And the outsourcing has worsened the already-toxic relationship with the PFT, which filed a class-action grievance against the School District after it first decided to scrap the internal hiring process and use a private vendor. The issue is currently before an arbitrator, who will decide whether the District violated the PFT contract and determine any financial awards.
Not surprisingly, PFT president Jerry Jordan was unimpressed by Kelly’s early fill rates.
“I don’t think it’s anything to celebrate,” Jordan said.
Despite the improvement in the substitute situation, the District is still grappling with an inability to hire all the teachers it needs. Problems in filling all its special education positions led the Pennsylvania Department of Education last month to order the District to provide compensatory education to students in nine schools that had vacant positions for long periods last year.
The original complaint was brought by Councilwoman Helen Gym, who has been regularly sounding the alarm that the District has lost its ability to fulfill its “central mission … to put a teacher in front of every student.” Gym reached out to parents and initiated the complaint to the state.
As of early October, the District website still listed about 60 teacher vacancies, including several in special education.
Both this year and last, it has sought to close this gap by hiring outside contractors to fill special education positions, Geary said.
Contact Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa at firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @dalemezz. Avi Wolfman-Arent is an education reporter for NewsWorks