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Philadelphia City Council questions district on projection for lower enrollment

A view of the Philadelphia City Hall from Market Street in downtown Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s City Hall. City Council questioned school officials Wednesday on the district’s proposed 2022-23 budget.

Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

Philadelphia City Council members Wednesday sharply questioned school officials about their projection for declining enrollment, saying the district is not doing enough to keep students and families in public schools or lure back those who have left. 

In drafting its 2023 fiscal budget, officials are projecting a loss of 7,000 students next year, down 6% from this year’s total of 115,000 in district-run schools. This decrease would result in a loss of 350 teachers who are allotted based on enrollment.  Another 83,000 Philadelphia students attend charter schools, including 14,000 in cyber charters.

At the annual school budget hearing before the council, members Helen Gym and Katherine Gilmore Richardson questioned whether the district was deliberately underestimating its student enrollment to justify closing schools in the future. 

“This is an existential crisis,” Gym said. “It’s hard not to see the new facilities master plan as a blueprint for school closings. 

This is bad for the city, Gym said.  “You lose students, we lose families.” 

Superintendent William Hite, who is leaving next month after 10 years leading the system, said that school districts all over the country have lost students during the pandemic. Pennsylvania data shows that cyber charters and homeschooling are showing gains, while enrollment in district-run and charter schools is showing no growth or decreases, he said.

“For families who have left, the re-engagement effort is more difficult,” Hite said, adding that keeping schools open for a full year of instruction has helped. Philadelphia district schools shut down in March 2020, and most remained closed for the 2020-2021 school year. 

Gym asked officials for a “full analysis who we are losing children to,” and asked for “specific strategies for each and every school” on what they were doing to engage with families and enroll students. 

Gilmore Richardson, a graduate of city public schools and mother of two in the system, angrily detailed the difficulties she has encountered in enrolling her younger child in kindergarten, and said she suspects that problem is widespread. Gilmore Richardson said that her son was assigned to a school two miles away from her home instead of a much closer one. “Every family that seeks to enroll a child should be able to do so,” she said. “It should never be this hard.” 

Chief of Student Services Karyn Lynch said that school catchment areas determine where a student is assigned, and that changing them is a yearslong process involving extensive data collection and public engagement. Lynch said Gilmore Richardson’s case is complicated because her assigned neighborhood school is a Renaissance Charter – former district school that is now run by a charter company but retains its catchment area. 

Gilmore Richardson explained in an email later that her neighborhood school is Mastery Mann, and her closest district-run school is Samuel Gompers. However, since Mann only goes up to sixth grade, children are assigned to Blankenberg, two miles away, for seventh and eighth grades, she said, even though Gompers is closer. 

She finds the student assignment system unacceptable. 

“I made the [district] aware of this issue two years ago when I was seeking to enroll my daughter in [kindergarten],” she said “They assured me the issue was fixed. Two years later, I am seeking to enroll my son in [kindergarten] and am again encountering this issue.”

At the hearing, she asked the district to provide enrollment data versus the prior year’s enrollment projection back to 2008 to see how accurate they were. She said she is concerned that officials are “interfering with projected enrollments,” which then affects staffing, so they can then “turn around and say there are not enough students to keep this school open. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

For all the criticism, many council members praised Hite and thanked him for his service leading the district over the past decade. 

When he arrived, the district faced deficits and a designation of junk status for its bonds, which made it harder to borrow money. Hite restored the district to fiscal health. That came at a price, however, as the year after he arrived, the district cut nurses, art and music teachers, and counselors, and closed almost 30 schools in what was then called an effort to “right size” the building inventory. Many parents and neighborhoods bitterly fought the closings. 

The new facilities planning process describes the conditions of all school buildings.Officials will be holding public hearings from May 10-25 on ongoing efforts to repair and update the buildings, many of which need remediation for lead and asbestos. Each school has a score for its condition, its “educational suitability,” and its current utilization level.

Several council members questioned the district’s level of effort to combat gun violence, demanding an accounting of programs and personnel dedicated to that districtwide and in individual schools. The city had a record number of shootings last year and is on pace to exceed that this year. There have been 145 homicides in 2022; 12 of those victims were under 18.

Hite, Lynch, and Kevin Bethel, the district’s special advisor for school safety, outlined several programs, totalling about $1 million, aimed at students experiencing trauma. “Out of a $3.5 billion budget?” asked council member Kenyatta Johnson.

Bethel said, “This is part of a bigger pie. A lot more money is being expended.”

The district also asked City Council for help in combatting the crisis, through partnerships and agency cooperation.

Council president Darrell Clarke said there were enough unanswered questions that the council will call the district back to give more testimony, but hasn’t yet set a date.

The district must defend its budget each year before the city council, which provides the local tax dollars to the district, amounting to about half its more than $3.5 billion budget. The Board of Education has no taxing power of its own and relies on city, state, and federal funds. 

The district is not asking for a tax increase, as it does in some years, said Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson as he presented a five-year plan that showed fund balances through 2024, mostly due to federal pandemic aid. But the district’s structural deficit – annual expenditures exceeding annual revenues – will return in 2025 after the pandemic aid runs out, based on current taxing and spending levels, he said.

Monson outlined new investments in the budget, including more hours for climate staff, who help with discipline, a reduced student-counselor ratio, and expanded after-school programs. 

At “every staff level, we see increasing numbers,” Monson, citing assistant principals, special education teachers, and counselors. However, he warned about the looming “fiscal cliff” when the federal pandemic aid runs out. That is “part of a larger discussion,” he said.  

Several public speakers who addressed council later in the day said that district schools still lack what they should have to educate their students, who are mostly Black and Latino and low-income. 

“We should not only have adequate funding in our schools when there are emergency federal dollars on the table,” said parent Stephanie King. “I applaud the job Mr. Monson has done to use these funds most appropriately. But the city needs to ensure that these programs and staffing do not come and go and federal dollars dry up.”

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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