Yesterday, Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite wrote to the entire staff of the School District of Philadelphia to announce that the district’s financial crisis would delay the opening of school, due to take place in just four weeks, unless additional funds of $50 million can be found by Friday, August 16th.
After what was called a “doomsday budget” was passed last spring by the state appointed overseer of the School District of Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission, Trip Gabriel, a New York Times reporter visiting Philadelphia’s Andrew Jackson School wrote: “Under a draconian budget passed by the Philadelphia School District last month, none of these supporting players–aide, counselor, secretary, security monitor–will remain at the school by September, nor will there be money for books, paper, a nurse, or the school’s locally celebrated rock band.” Gabriel continued: “Principals are contemplating opening in September with larger classes but no one to answer phones, keep order on the playground, coach sports, check out library books or send transcripts for seniors applying to college.”
According to Hite’s August 8 letter to staff, the situation is little changed despite requests to the state, the city (which is involved in school allocations under Pennsylvania law), and the teachers union for help. Here is what Hite wrote yesterday in a plea for $50 million: “$50 million allows us to tell parents that when their child is walking through the hallways, eating lunch or at recess, an adult will be supervising them. It allows us to tell parents that counselors will be available to serve children in our largest and neediest schools, and that an assistant principal will be on hand to resolve any disciplinary issues that keep children from learning. It will allow the principal to leave the office to support staff and address issues in other parts of the school. No principal can run a 3,000-student high school—much less a 400-student elementary school—on their own.”
The state-appointed School Reform Commission, the governor, and the mayor of Philadelphia have been asking for concessions from the teachers union, and it is likely that Hite’s letter yesterday is a ploy to gain concessions. However, this is not merely a matter of political jockeying. Here are some realities. According to a June 20 analysis by Daniel Denvir, a Philadelphia City Paper reporter who has extensively researched and reported on the long and ugly politics of Philadelphia school reform, “The School District is demanding $133 million in labor concessions to plug its $304 million budget gap. That is more than twice as much as it requested from the city and $13 million more than what it’s seeking from the state—which cut nearly $1 billion from school funding statewide (that’s you, Gov. Tim Corbett) despite its constitutional obligation to fund public education, and, critically, its direct control of city schools for the past decade.”
Bruce Baker, the school finance professor and expert at Rutgers University also spoke to the fiscal crisis in the School District of Philadelphia on June 20. Here is his assessment: “1) Pennsylvania has among the least equitable state school finance systems in the country, and Philly bears the brunt of that system. 2) Pennsylvania’s school finance system is actually designed in ways that divert needed funding away from higher need districts like Philadelphia. 3) And Pennsylvania’s school finance system has created numerous perverse incentives regarding charter school funding also to Philly’s disadvantage.”
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a constitutional responsibility to provide public education to children and adolescents in Philadelphia.