This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
More than 100 people crowded into the library of Sayre High School in West Philadelphia on Monday night to tell three City Council members what their schools need and don’t have.
The library, shorn of books and devoid of computers, was an apt setting for repeated complaints about too few counselors, a treacherous lack of nurses, oversized classes, non-functioning water fountains, dirty and poorly maintained buildings, and an overall lack of sufficient supplies.
City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who called the session, along with fellow Council members Jannie Blackwell and David Oh, listened for 90 minutes as parents, teachers, and community residents vented their frustrations.
A teacher from Huey Elementary, which is slated to become a charter school operated by Global Leadership Academy, said her school is now "in a dangerous situation. Logistically, we don’t have enough staff to do what needs to be done."
Parents said that, nevertheless, they didn’t want the school to become a charter, fearing that their children would not be able to attend. Said one: "We hope there’s a future plan, so students can go to school in the neighborhood they live in, can have pride in the neighborhood they live in."
Kathleen Anderson, a special education teacher at West Philadelphia High, added another job category to the list of those that have been cut back: speech and occupational therapists.
"I haven’t had a speech therapist for two-and-a-half months," she said. "They’re supposed to be in the school, and we’re supposed to be working as a team."
She noted that the legally binding education plans for special education students require such services. Parents sue and often win when their children don’t get what they are entitled to, which also has a big cost, she said.
Mayor Kenney sat and listened for nearly an hour, pronouncing himself "frustrated" before he rushed to his next engagement.
“These problems are real and desperate," said Kenney, who stopped to pose for several selfies with admirers as he left the library. He blamed legislators in Harrisburg, who have failed to pass a state budget this year and who often turn deaf ears to Philadelphia’s pleas for more funds.
"I don’t know what they think," Kenney said, ticking off what the city has done to invest more in its schools, including several tax increases. "We put $400 million in our schools, we’re trying with pre-K and community schools."
"These problems are real, but the answer is not the people sitting at the table," he said. "The answers are with the people down the turnpike. How do we get them to recognize that?"
City Council / Flickr
In a presentation, Gym outlined how the District’s budget had declined from $3.2 billion in 2010 to $2.9 billion in 2016, even though the total student body in District and charter schools remained the same.
In 2010, the state paid 60 percent of the costs, the city 30 percent, and the federal government, 10 percent, she said. Now, the state pays 50 percent, the city 45 percent, and the federal government, which slashed several programs targeted to low-income students and districts, contributes just 5 percent.
Kenney said that he believed former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, "had the intention to starve Philadelphia schools to create an entirely charter school system." Corbett made decisions that cut $1 billion in state aid to school districts, with Philadelphia absorbing about a quarter of that, or a $240 million reduction.
Corbett lost the election in 2014 to Democrat Tom Wolf, who has been trying ever since – without success – to raise state taxes and pour more state money into education statewide. Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature are still at loggerheads over priorities and have gone a record eight months without passing a full state budget, forcing districts around the state, including Philadelphia, to borrow money and slash programming. Some aren’t sure they can last out the year.
Kenney said he was hopeful that Harrisburg could come to an agreement. "This is not me passing the buck, but I can’t do the governor’s, the legislature’s, the SRC’s job." Speaking of the people at the town hall, he said, "My responsibility is to listen to their frustration. I am as frustrated as they are.”
Gym said the intent of these community meetings is to have people in the community determine the direction of the District’s next budget.
She presented data showing that neighborhood high schools have lost nearly 28 percent of their staffs since 2011, citywide schools nearly 23 percent, and special admission schools 15 percent. She pointed out that there are still nearly 200 teacher vacancies, a situation she called "unheard of."
"We’re talking about [restoring] the basic tools that schools need to function," she said. "We have to pay attention to facilities, we can’t have schools without water access and that are so filthy they make kids feel like they are less than human. … Students have basic human rights."
Later this week, the District plans to unveil a "turnaround" plan for four low-performing District schools, which is already being criticized for causing upheaval rather than providing the schools with more resouces.
Internal documents obtained by the Notebook show that the price tag for these turnarounds, which involve rebuilding school staffs and leadership as well as additional programming and professional development for teachers, will be $16 million, although it is unclear over what time period.
The documents also indicate that some of that money will come from outside private sources.
Also present at the event were Kenney’s chief education officer, Otis Hackney, and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, although neither spoke. The next two town halls will be held Tuesday night at South Philadelphia High and March 15 at Edison High.
Notebook writer Bill Hangley contributed reporting.