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What would an adequate budget for city schools actually look like?

The SRC told District officials to put one together that would let elected officials know what is actually needed

Joyce Wilkerson at SRC.
Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks

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

The School Reform Commission shocked most everyone Thursday night when it passed a $2.9 billion budget outline for next year, but then declared it inadequate and ordered District finance officials to craft a document that, in the words of chair Joyce Wilkerson, “reflects the real needs of the children of Philadelphia.”

The unforeseen action was instigated by Commissioner Bill Green, who extracted an admission from Superintendent William Hite that the modest increase in the budget from this year to next was due to fixed costs such as pensions and debt service, not because of significant new investments in schools.

Green was the only one of the four commissioners to vote against adopting the so-called “lump sum” budget, so it passed. But the commissioners, Hite, Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson, and speakers at the meeting all agreed, tacitly or otherwise, that what they agreed to isn’t adequate for the District to fulfill its mission – making sure that all its students graduate with the skills and knowledge to succeed in college or the workforce.

"We are not receiving adequate funding, but I think it makes sense to spend time to develop what a real budget would look like for the District," Wilkerson said.

But crafting a “real” and “adequate” budget is fraught with peril, political and otherwise. What does “adequate” mean?” What should such a budget include? Smaller class sizes? Social workers in every school? Or more “turnaround” efforts that include the creation of charter schools and outsourcing of services?

And what about teacher salaries? In the throes of an unprecedented four-year stalemate with the teachers union, do you call for salary levels to jump so that they reach suburban levels to help with hiring the best teachers and keeping them in the city? Hite has publicly said he thinks teachers deserve more money, but that the District doesn’t have the money to give it to them.

In a series of town hall meetings Councilwoman Helen Gym held this fall, hundreds came out to complain about what their neighborhood schools, chief among them adequate counselors, sufficient classes in the arts, and support services around school climate and behavioral health.

“We need a clear restoration agenda prioritizing learning, behavioral health, safety in schools,” said Gym. “The District needs to follow what the community is already underway in doing.”

Hite’s “anchor goals” toward fulfilling the District’s mission include insuring that all students can read proficiently by the time they start fourth grade, that all students graduate high school, and that educators are trained properly so all schools “have great principals and teachers.”

The fourth goal is to “have 100 percent of the funding we need for great schools and zero deficit.” The 2017-8 budget outline that passed Thursday has a small fund balance of $33 million, but by the end of fiscal 2019 the forecast is for a shortfall of $138 million – and that is without adding any more services for children.

For too long, the District has been forced to craft budgets within the parameters set by its major funders, the city and the state. As Commissioner Farah Jimenez puts it: “We get an allowance.” The SRC has no taxing power of its own.

Yearly adjustments occur, up or down. But a serious assessment of what is really needed to adequately prepare most students in the country’s poorest big city for successful lives has not really been attempted.

“Often we come forward with as narrow an increase we can put before [elected officials], the only thing we generally ask for are increases precipitated by things over which we have no control,” said Jimenez. “The budget increases every year are the result of rising health care and pension costs and because of a charter school formula that we’re required to follow.”

The charge now, she said, is basically to see whether elected officials are willing to deal with reality.

‘Bad savings’

Ten years ago, the state did a so-called Costing Out Study that tried to determine what it would take to provide a basic education – or one that is “thorough and efficient,” as the state constitution puts it – to all the students in Pennsylvania. It was based on what “successful” districts were spending per student and adjusted for local conditions, including student factors such as poverty and English language status. The study, done by an outside consulting firm, determined that the state needed to invest $3 billion more in schools and that Philadelphia should get about $1 billion in additional funds, or a third of that amount.

This was done during the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat and former Philadelphia mayor, and he set about trying to make a down payment on achieving this goal by increasing state education funding. He had to goal of eventually getting the state share of spending on education, now among the lowest in the country at about a third, close to the national average of 48 percent.

But Rendell was replaced by Republican Tom Corbett, who made decisions that cut by about $1 billion state and federal education aid that went to districts. Philadelphia alone lost more than a quarter of that, and it still hasn’t recovered the full amount it got from the state in real dollars prior to 2011, when the Corbett cuts took hold.

Last year, after years slashing programs and laying off people to make ends meet, Hite was able to make new investments that will amount to $526 million over six years. But most of those investments, while welcome, largely restored to schools personnel like counselors and nurses that had been decimated or eliminated altogether the wake of the Corbett cuts.

The District’s small fund balance is caused in part by its inability last year to fill all its teaching jobs and by savings from the impasse with the PFT that has resulted in teachers getting no raises during that time. “Bad savings,” as District Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson once put it. Jimenez explained that part of the reason the District couldn’t fill all the vacancies last year was the delay in passage of the state budget, which delayed the transfers of state subsidies to the District and crimped its cash flow.

Class size reductions

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and the policy director for Rendell when the costing out study was done, said – and others largely agreed – that the biggest expense in a revised “real” budget would be to hire more personnel. She and several others, including SRC member Chris McGinley, a former suburban superintendent, said a high priority should be to reduce class size and provide more art and music classes, more counselors, social workers, and consistent behavioral supports.

But, by how much should class size be reduced? Cooper said that research shows that the teacher-student ratio for kindergarten through third grade should be 1 to 17. Now, in most District schools, those classes can have as many as 30 students. (This year, despite a citywide push on Read by 4th to make sure all students reach that benchmark, there was some backsliding on fourth grade reading proficiency rates.)

But would reducing to 25 be cost effective? And Jimenez is skeptical about the class size research. She looks at studies that say the skills of the teacher has more of an impact.

So should there be more investment in teacher training? And what kind of teacher training?

Cooper thinks it is pretty straightforward, a simple calculation. “You know how many school buildings you have, and how many students, and how many teachers you need to bring class size to a reasonable level,” Cooper said. She would be happy with K-3 classes at 20, and those above at 25, which matches the ratios in most well-off suburbs.

Then factor in more counselors, because in Philadelphia they have to deal with mental health needs and special education and so much more than college counseling and course selection. And more art and music teachers, not just one per school, but enough so that students can get at least one art class a week. And then enough teachers for Advanced Placement courses in all high schools.

And then maybe add social workers to take the burden off counselors who now must do it all.

Figuring out the proper ratios for all these people “shouldn’t be that hard,” she said. “I’m not talking about a utopian district where every kid gets field trips and violin lessons. I’m talking about rudimentary adequacy, the investments needed to boost student performance. There’s plenty of research on what experience is necessary for students to succeed given the needs of our population.”

Through all this, she said, the District should continue to look for efficiencies, she said, but not shirk from the final number.

“If it turns out that we need a billion more, that’s a messaging challenge in Harrisburg,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know what’s needed.”

‘Restoration agenda’

Commissioner Chris McGinley has served as superintendent of two suburban districts, including Lower Merion, which spends nearly three times per student as Philadelphia.

He agrees that the District needs to determine what is “adequate.” And for him, it also means lower class size, as well as an end to longstanding cost-saving moves to save money on personnel costs that disrupt schools. Those include “split” grades where students in different grades are in the same classroom and the annual “leveling” process where teachers are moved around in October, if enrollment projections were off.

For instance, the class size maximum in the teachers’ contract is 30 for K-3 and 33 above that. So if a school turns out to have 40 first graders, seven of them might be put in an undersized second grade instead of keeping two classes of 20, each with its own teacher, which would be better for education but worse for the budget.

“Eliminating one or two teachers in an elementary school in October could affect hundreds of kids,” McGinley said. But getting rid of leveling alone, he said, “will cost millions of dollars.” Gym said there is absolutely no reason other than cost to maintain this disruptive practice.

Overall teacher attrition rates in the District are about 10 percent, not terrible for a system of this size. But it means hiring about a thousand teachers each year, and many of them leave within a few years of being hired.

A lot of that attrition is due to bad working conditions, like large classes and not enough counselors, exacerbated by the District’s awful relationship with the PFT and the four-year failure to reach an agreement. McGinley says that such turnover makes investments in teacher orientation and training problematic.

“If we could invest in a very good teacher training programs, when 1,000 people need to be replaced each year, who are we training them for?” McGinley asked.

So would such a calculation include competitive teacher salaries? Said McGinley: “Coming to a successful collective bargaining agreement is a critical piece in any puzzle. Anything you’re going to do to improve the quality of instruction begins with a sound, fair agreement.”

Jimenez has a similar outlook.

“You’ve been out there saying we need a fair contract, and we agree, so how much are they willing to put on the table to facilitate that?” she said. “And how much are they willing to facilitate investments in classroom tech, supplemental staff, quality educational materials, and enrichment programs that all our schools are starved of? We are asking the sources of our ‘allowance’ to be part of this exercise.

Cooper said that she realizes the potential import of the District including in any calculation higher compensation for teachers. But, she said, in the long run, that would be a small piece of the overall cost; most of it would go to hiring many, many more people, even with disagreements over just how much class size should be reduced.

“The biggest expenditure is the number of staff you’d need to teach children,” she said.

Councilwoman Gym said that a true “restoration agenda” would be about a lot more than hiring additional teachers. It would convey the message that the system is being reenergized and renewed, and not in a downward spiral of austerity that the current five-year plan lays out. Under the current outlook, it is no wonder teachers and families are bailing for charter schools and suburban districts.

She issued a statement saying that city officials may have to bite the bullet. “Given current budget predictions, we must be prepared to consider further increasing city revenues to our schools as we see the federal and state governments continue their retreat from our public schools," the statement said.

Drama regarding the District’s budget is not new. In fact, one could argue that the SRC exists mostly because of a prior confrontation between Superintendent David Hornbeck and Gov. Tom Ridge in 2000. Hornbeck, who cast the budget issue in moral terms, vowed to spend as much money as he felt was needed and shut down schools in March, or whenever the money ran out. Thatre scenario led to Hornbeck’s resignation, but also to the deal that resulted in the demise of the old Board of Education and its replacement by the SRC.

More recently,at the worst of the crisis after the Corbett cuts and facing school buildings without so much as secretaries, much less counselors and art teachers, the SRC adopted a lump sum budget that counted on receiving $440 million in revenue that it didn’t yet have.

So far, there is no deadline for producing a “real” budget, but presumably it would be before a final budget is adopted by the end of May

“We should know what the superintendent believes it would take to improve instruction, and not just live within our means,” McGinley said. The lump sum budget the SRC adopted, he said, “is minimal. We should know what adequate would look like.”

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