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Staff shortages could jeopardize District’s Title I aid, city controller warns

Dale Mezzacappa

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

City Controller Alan Butkovitz has found that several Philadelphia schools last year failed to reach staffing levels required by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and some of its federal aid could be in jeopardy as a result.

According to the audit, in 2015-16 the District fell short by 48 staffers in 17 schools under requirements meant for receiving funds under Title I, which is the main federal program targeted toward at-risk low-income children. The school district receives more than $110 million a year in Title I funds.

The District has initiated a new hiring push this year and for the past several years has had trouble filling all of its vacancies. The School Reform Commission and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers have been unable to reach a new contract agreement since 2013, and wages have been frozen for nearly five years.

Spokesman Lee Whack issued a statement saying that the District “is committed to making every effort to fill vacant positions, especially when the positions are essential to meeting the needs of our students.” He said it has filled 99 percent of its teaching positions this year.

“Currently we have an aggressive, multi-media campaign underway to recruit teachers and school-based support staff, and it is showing results. We have received more than 800 applications to fill teaching positions next school year.”

In a further effort to boost recruitment, Whack also disclosed that the District is planning to waive costs associated with the application process, such as for clearances and physicals, for employees who will make less than $40,000 a year. “This will decrease the burden on applicants and allow us to hire needed staff quicker,” the statement said.

One of the items on the table in the stalled contract talks is to give bonuses to teachers who work in the hardest-to-staff schools.

Title I aid is passed through states, which set the requirements for receiving it. State and federal regulations are designed to ensure that districts are not using the money to provide students in the poorest schools with additional services, not to substitute for limited state and local funds.

Because the poverty rate in the city is so high, all schools in Philadelphia receive some money through the program, which means that a staff shortage in any school would put the District out of compliance.

The state Department of Ed found 23 schools last year with staff shortages, including teachers andinstructional support personnel. Butkovitz’s office followed up in those 23 and found 17 still out of compliance.

According to the audit, Frankford High School, with nearly 1300 students, was short 3.6 “full time equivalents,” while Ethel Allen Elementary and Benjamin Franklin High school lacked 3.4 FTEs.

Bartram High and Rhoades and Huey elementary schools were each short more than 2 staffers.

Other schools with a shortage were Martha Washington, Edmonds, Blankenburg, Anderson, Morton and Barry elementaries; Tilden and Wagner middle schools, and Overbrook, Sayre and Lincoln high schools.

Philadelphia’s allotment of Title I aid has gone down significantly over the past few years; as recently as 2012 it got $240 million through the program. As yet, the District has not been denied any of the aid it is entitled to due to the staff shortages.

Title I aid is distributed among schools in Philadelphia according to a formula that divides schools into four tiers depending on the rate poverty among the students. Schools with more than 76.61 percent poverty get the most aid per student, while those with a rate below 57.14. percent get the least. Schools that slip back and forth on the edges of those categories can find their budget seesawing from year to year. And in most other districts, 57 percent poverty would be at the threshold for getting the most aid, not the least.

Butkovitz recommended that the District “investigate innovative ways of attracting new employees to ensure that services provided under the systemwide Title I program are substantially comparable among schools.”

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