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District Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson presented revised budget figures to the Board of Education on Thursday.

Board of Ed settles the budget, hears calls for input into fall planning

As state funds bring financial relief, parents seek a role in shaping reopening plans.

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

On Thursday, the day that the Pennsylvania legislature approved a budget that sustains school spending for the next year, the Philadelphia Board of Education unanimously approved its own revised budget, authorized millions in capital spending, and renewed the charters of two schools.

But as the District’s strategies for September are being shaped behind closed doors, the board also heard calls for increased community involvement in planning for schools’ reopening.

“Families come to me with concerns they want to [bring] to the District, and they don’t think the District is listening. These families are hurting,” said parent advocate Cecelia Thompson.

District officials, who are developing their reopening plans with the help of 10 separate internal working groups, promised to reach out to parents soon to learn about community priorities and concerns for September.

“We’re going to be surveying teachers, as well as families … just to inform the options or scenarios we come up with next year,” said Superintendent William Hite. Surveys will go out in early June, he said. “We can use that information as we begin to make plans. … It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem.”

Thompson, a member of the board’s advisory committee for community engagement, said that surveys alone are inadequate. She asked that the District hold town-hall-style virtual meetings that will allow parents to raise their own concerns, particularly where special education and English learners are involved.

“Usually surveys have questions that lead to a targeted outcome. I recommend a Zoom session,” Thompson said – preferably several, she added, to accommodate parents’ busy schedules.

Earlier on Thursday, Hite told reporters that the District will be planning around three basic September scenarios – a full return to buildings, a fully virtual semester, and some sort of hybrid. At Thursday’s board meeting, he explained further that the exact plan for each school could vary, depending on the availability of space and staff. Even if some schools can hold classes, Hite said, “there will be individual schools which for a variety of reasons will need to continue working remotely.”

The District must provide the “necessary flexibilities” to allow each school to develop its own mix of classroom and virtual learning, Hite said.

The prospect of entering the new school year with so few clear standards for safety, scheduling, and academic support leaves some parents and advocates worried that the equity gap will widen as schools pursue their various plans with whatever community resources they can muster.

“Dr. Hite has mentioned multiple times that solutions may look different across communities,” said Zoe Rooney, a teacher at Strawberry Mansion High and an advocate with Parents United for Public Education. “The way this usually works out is the inequities are compounded. … It seems likely that special admits will get to make their own way forward, while the rest of us get weighed down with District requirements.”

Graduation preparations

Thursday’s meeting touched on a number of other topics, including plans for graduation. The District will host a virtual ceremony and “after-party” for the class of 2020 on June 9, officials said, and board members and public speakers alike shared their appreciation.

“As a parent of a graduating senior, I just want to thank the District. … It’s really meaningful for these students that are missing this rite of passage,” said board member Angela McIver. “I am really sad for all of the students.”

Doha Ibrahim, a Lincoln High senior and one of the board’s two student representatives, said: “We really see the efforts you guys are putting in to make this memorable for us.”

But Ibrahim also had a warning for the District: Its new online learning options aren’t getting great reviews. During a recent group call with fellow District students, Ibrahim said, she and fellow student representative Imere Williams got that message loud and clear.

“They feel that the work they are receiving is not challenging at all,” Ibrahim said. “Students on our call defined it as ‘busywork,’ and I can testify to that as well.”

Revised budget is approved

The board approved a revised budget for the current school year, a task made significantly easier by the Pennsylvania legislature’s decision to fund schools at current levels for the next 12 months. The House passed its budget bill several days ago, and the Senate approved it just hours before Thursday’s board meeting.

“A lot has happened in the last 48 hours,” said Chief Finance Officer Uri Monson. The General Assembly’s decision boosts the District’s anticipated revenue by about $70 million and allows the District to end this year and fiscal 2021 with a modest fund balance.

The General Assembly’s decision also allowed Mayor Kenney to back off plans for a local property tax increase.

In the long run, however, shrinking state and local tax revenues and rising costs – including next year’s anticipated increase of $114 million in charter payments – darken the District’s long-term budget picture, Monson said. But between its relatively healthy fiscal position and the political support it is getting from Kenney, Gov. Tom Wolf, and other policymakers, the District is in better shape than many other large urban systems, Monson said.

“I’m part of a group of 40 or 50 CFOs from districts around the country,” he said. “We are in some ways in a better position [than most]. … Some school districts have actually seen cuts in the current year, even before they deal with next year’s issues.”

The General Assembly’s decision to fully fund public education is a major relief for District officials and advocates alike. The Pennsylvania School Board Association said the new state plan “provides the certainty needed by school districts for their own budget planning.”

In Philadelphia, the Education Law Center noted that Harrisburg’s decision represented a welcome departure from lawmakers’ past practice.

“Pennsylvania legislators recognized that not subjecting our schools to any further cuts was a necessity,” said ELC executive director Deborah Gordon Klehr. “This is a sign of progress, reflecting years of advocacy about the importance of state education funding.”

But Klehr added that “much work remains” to solve “longstanding issues of inadequate and inequitable school funding.” Among the ELC’s recommendations: Use some of Pennsylvania’s $3.9 billion in unspent federal stimulus dollars provided by the recently passed CARES Act to support schools.

“A portion of those dollars should go to help schools cope with growing needs,” said Klehr, including summer programs, online learning support, and programs for special education students and English language learners.

The board thanked Monson and his team for their work balancing the budget, but member Mallory Fix Lopez urged District officials, advocates, and her fellow board members alike to think carefully about their own agendas.

“It’s probably going to be an unpopular statement, but it’s important moving forward that we … prioritize some of our wants,” Fix Lopez said. “Many of us want libraries, many of us want air conditioners … but this is a time when we have to be realistic and honest with each other. I would hope that we would all as a city work together and all be on the same page.”

Expanded virtual opportunities for summer

District officials outlined a raft of new virtual programs for the summer, hoping that their new offerings will help prevent or reverse the loss of learning that has accompanied the coronavirus shutdown.

“Many programs have a registration target of June 12,” Hite said. “Spread the word.”

Altogether, Hite said, the District will offer about 35,000 slots in various online programs:

  • The Penn Rising Senior Summer Academy (PennRSSA) will offer a mix of virtual academic and mental health supports to 2,500 District students. The program promises an “inclusive” and “radical” pedagogy, supported by Penn graduate students and educators. The program is valued at $1.2 million but is being offered at “no cost to the district,” said board member McIver. It is open to any student who has completed the 11th grade.
  • The board approved $400,000 for a Philadelphia Youth Network summer internship program that promises to offer “meaningful work-based learning and academic enrichment experiences.” The program offers 260 slots.
  • The board also approved $116,000 for PYN’s summer entrepreneurship program, StartUp EDU, serving 75 students in grades 9-12.
  • Hite announced a new initiative for students in grades 3-7 called Soar, an academic support program that aims to reach 20,000 students.
  • Hite also announced an expanded summer school program for special education students. The program, which served 4,000 students last year, will serve 8,500 students this year.
  • A summer language program for English-language learners will have 1,000 slots.
Capital investments

Even as the coronavirus undermines many plans, the District’s capital program is steaming ahead, fueled by this year’s landmark $500 million bond issue. Hite said that the District is proceeding with six major building renovations, as well as modernization upgrades for 147 classrooms and asbestos remediation in 40 schools.

The board approved several projects at Thursday’s meeting, including:

The board also approved a total of $5.8 million for changes to construction and renovations in Ben Franklin High/Science Leadership Academy. Of that, $3.4 million goes to “complete the asbestos abatement work in the auditorium and modifications to existing science lab casework and to provide gas service drops in 4th- and 5th-floor science labs.”

Charters approved without comment – or a price tag

The board unanimously approved five-year extensions for two charter schools: Mastery Frederick Douglass, a neighborhood K-8 Renaissance school of about 775 students, and the Russell Byers Charter School, a traditional lottery-based K-8 charter of about 725 students.

Neither school is a stellar academic performer, and both have their share of administrative issues. District assessments show that both have lagged behind “similar schools” in most academic areas. However, the Charter Schools Office recommended both for renewal. It called for conditions for Mastery Douglass, but did not specify those conditions.

The Charter Schools Office did not make a presentation to discuss the schools or their performance, and the board voted to approve both renewals unanimously (with one abstention), without comment.

Several parents turned out to praise Mastery.

“I am happy to say that this school turned out to be better than expected,” said parent Khadija Ali. “This is a school that gets things done and listens to our needs.”

But advocates from the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) ripped the board’s decision, accusing the board of concealing its renewal process even as it calls for reform in the state charter law and funding formula. The “conditions” described in the renewal remain unknown to the public, said APPS’ Lisa Haver, as are the potential costs of the renewals.

“The five-year renewals will cost taxpayers a minimum of $100 million over the next five years,” said Haver. APPS has long demanded that the board share all conditions and costs tied to charter renewals.

Under the locally controlled school board, which started in 2018, the renewal process is growing more opaque, Haver said, not more transparent. The board and public don’t even hear presentations from the Charter Schools Office anymore, she said – a routine practice under the departed School Reform Commission.

“The board rightfully calls for reform of the Pennsylvania charter law, but the board has hidden every step of the renewal process,” said Haver.

Added another APPS member, Diane Payne: “The board is either interested in public discourse or not. … Too much is already being done behind closed doors.”

Board officers and a new member

The board held elections for its officers, re-electing Board President Joyce Wilkerson unanimously.

“It would be a loss for her to step down,” said board member Julia Danzy.

“I’m flattered,” said Wilkerson. “It’s a joy to work with everyone.”

For vice president, the board chose member Leticia Egea-Hinton to replace Wayne Walker, who stepped down for personal reasons.

“It’s definitely been a learning experience,” Egea-Hinton said. “I’m honored.”

New board member Ameen Akbar, a former charter school administrator who specializes in youth development, joined the board for his first action meeting. Akbar was quiet for most of the evening, but took a moment to praise the work of the board’s student representatives, particularly their success in connecting with their peers through social media and email blasts.

The District’s administrators struggle to reach students and families when they’re out of school, Akbar said, and they could learn a lot from the networking skills displayed by the two student reps.

“Getting hold of students – young people are going to lead the way on that,” said Akbar.

Board members welcomed Akbar, a Masterman High and Pennsylvania State alum whose experience includes organizing mentorship programs and coaching basketball.

“This must be the strangest time to join a school board,” said member Fix Lopez, before urging Akbar and the rest of the board to think creatively about the challenges ahead.

“We have just been appointed to a second term. … Being newbies is no longer a crutch,” said Fix Lopez. “We must be bold enough to take actions that match our message, to push forward, and be unafraid.”