School district faces $39 million gap requiring still more cuts
On Wednesday, with some new faces in place, School Reform Commission members, before a packed auditorium at School District headquarters on Broad Street that required an overflow room, contorted their faces and shifted uncomfortably in their seats as Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch told a disbelieving group that the District has to make $39 million more in reductions.
“We have some bad news, but we have some good news as well,” Masch began. “I will get to the unpleasant first. These are difficult times, and unfortunately, they are not ending any time soon.”
Masch announced approximately $17 million in new cuts, and then said this leaves approximately $22 million more to be axed in the latest round. Individual school budgets, already skeletal, could be slashed, he said, by another one percent, or an average of $40,000 per school.
The $17 million in proposed cuts is expected to come from the areas of professional development, English-language learner instructors, psychologists and music, sports, educational technology and bilingual counseling assistants.
“There they go again, doing what they do best, making cuts that directly affect the poorest people in the city,” said one woman, who would not identify herself as she exited the auditorium rather than wait for Masch to conclude his approximately 45-minute presentation.
After the $17 million in cuts is realized, the School District will still be desperately trying to eliminate the remaining $22 million shortfall. Acting superintendent Leroy Nunery and acting SRC chairman Wendell Pritchett have asked Masch for proposals recommending where the next round of cuts to reduce the shortfall will come from.
“These are difficult times for anyone in the system — students, parents, teachers, employees — they are hard for us all,” Pritchett said. “And unfortunately, they are not ending any time soon.”
Even with the $44 million in savings the district realized because of concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the principals’ union, the District had been banking on savings from union concessions in the neighborhood of $75 million.
Even the good news that Masch promised was not nearly as good as advertised.
He reported that when the District closed its books on the last school year in June, it did so with an $18.2 million surplus, good news — until he explained how that surplus came about.
In the robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul fashion that has become typical in Philadelphia’s public schools, the District had to shift a state grant received for the 2012 fiscal year into the 2011 budget. While this is permitted, the move created a matching hole in the 2012 budget.
Masch pointed out that most future cuts will have to be discretionary moves because “law” and/or “collective bargaining agreements” prevent them from coming from other areas.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first attended by mayoral SRC appointee Lorene Cary. The SRC is still awaiting the state Senate confirmations of gubernatorial appointees Pedro Ramos and Feather Houstoun.
Things won’t be any easier for the School District at next week’s meeting, which will be televised for the first time, the District announced. That meeting (Wednesday) will include recommendations for school closings and consolidations.
The School District of Philadelphia announced Wednesday its intentions to close nine schools, consolidate others, change the grade make-up of some, and to sell buildings and facilities that are no longer feasible for the financially strapped entity to operate.
As part of its Facilities Master Plan, the District presented 31 recommendations to the School Reform commission proposed to be implemented over the next two years. Most crucially, the district recommended the closing of nine schools: Levering Elementary School, Harrison Elementary, Sheppard Elementary, Drew Elementary, E.M. Stanton Elementary, Pepper Middle School, Fitzsimmons High School, Sheridan West Academy and the Philadelphia High School for Business.
Last year the school district recognized that there are approximately 70,000 empty seats in the school district. Mayor Michael Nutter supported the closing of old schools and underperforming schools that were costly to operate.
A preliminary list of prospective schools closings had indicated that more than 20 schools might be targeted for closure. This is just the recommendation phase. A vote will be put before the School Reform Commission in late winter or early spring.
Hilda Solis listens to community’s frustrations
As part of a Friday trip to Philadelphia to drum up support for President Obama’s $447 billion American Jobs Act, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis took time from her busy schedule to meet with members of the faith-based community in Southwest Philadelphia.
While visiting the Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School in the morning, Solis participated in a roundtable discussion with members of the faith-based community.
She then took a tour of the Charter School, which included a visit with the Amachi Program, the nationally recognized mentoring program, before leaving for an early afternoon tour of Esperanza Academy Charter High School.
“It is great to be here and see what is going on in this community at this school,” Solis said. “We want to get out into communities all across the country and speak with the people who are feeling the pain of our economy. We want them to know that we are pushing hard to get them back to work.”
Solis emphasized aspects of the jobs act that are pertinent to places like Philadelphia, where the economy is hurting. She pointed out that the plan, unveiled in September, would put two million people back to work almost immediately, many of them African Americans, especially in infrastructure jobs.
“We have a lot of African Americans, minorities, who have lost their jobs in construction, because that industry is struggling,” Solis said. “[The American Jobs Act] would help to put people back to work repairing roads, bridges, our aviation systems and schools. These are areas that have not been attended to and they are crucial for the country to get jumpstarted and the economy back on track again.”
Joseph Meade, president of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, said the visit was important because it is crucial for community leaders to have as much access to information as the country struggles to get its economic engine running again.
“I’m delighted that she came and that we were able to find a real person — at the top of the chain, in this case — whom we can communicate with,” he said. “She made some real resources available to us, and she gave us regional contact people that we can continue to work with. Not just in this community but across the city. There are substantial resources available for training and employment. It was all worth it.”
Solis highlighted the Jobs Act’s emphasis on areas such as cutting the payroll tax and extending unemployment insurance, which is scheduled to expire on approximately six million Americans around this time next year, just in time to become a 2012 election issue.
“Why wouldn’t anyone want to do this for communities that are struggling?” Solis said. “They are trying to make this an election issue but it’s not all about elections; it’s about hurting people. Families are unemployed, children are starving and people are living in poverty. Businesses need to feel confident that they are getting tax credits to do things like hire veterans and people who have been unemployed for a long time. This can’t wait 12 more months. It has to happen now. And people who are against it need to be made to tell people just why they feel that way.”
Pastor Eric Simmons, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Paschall, participated in the roundtable with Secretary Solis. Among other ministries at the church, Paschall has an economic empowerment ministry that is geared toward placing people in the community with jobs.
Simmons knows that there is no magic cure-all for this economy. However, having someone like Solis coming in and sharing ideas with the community is a great way to address the problem.
“As a church we want to continue to help grow the community,” Simmons said. “We just want to do our part. Having her come here and getting to see her passion for the things that we are doing — having her share resources — those are powerful things.”
Jerry Jordan fears Gov. Tom Corbett’s evaluation plan may be unfair
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan is completely on board with the concept of finding better ways to evaluate and turn out the most productive teachers. But he is leery that Gov. Tom Corbett, in his push to ‘improve’ the evaluation process, won’t recognize the many inequities that he said make school districts in Pennsylvania so vastly different.
“When you have a district that is less affluent, it is simply a greater challenge to ask teachers to perform the same job and get great results when they simply don’t have all of the necessary resources to get the job done,” Jordan said.
Last week Corbett introduced his four-point education reform plan, highlighting four areas his administration plans to address during the fall legislative session: charter schools; the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, opportunity scholarships and teacher evaluations. Corbett’s plan marks the first time academic achievement would be used as one of the indicators for evaluating teachers.
The governor said the current evaluation system is flawed and fails to provide useful feedback to allow educators to fully develop the teachers’ professional skills. The Pennsylvania Department of Education found that more than 99 percent of the state’s teachers received passing grades in 2009-10.
But Jordan said the disparity in resources between a district suffering from so many economic problems — most notably the $680 million budget gap the district has been attempting to close — and a more affluent district, creates certain inequities that make evaluating across districts almost impossible.
“One of the things that you have to look at and be honest about is the condition of your resources in a city like Philadelphia,” Jordan said. “Do we have the same resources in Philadelphia that teachers in a more affluent surrounding district might have?
“You have to look at the level of funding for each child,” he continued. “Lower Merion is spending about $21,000 annually for a child. Meanwhile, the district is spending about $12,000 per student. That’s a huge disparity. The playing field is not level. When you fail to give the resources to so many, and then you expect the same kind of results you’d get from children with significantly better resources — well, there’s just no equity in that.”
Matt Zieger, executive director of Team Pennsylvania Foundation, an organization on which Corbett is a co-chair, says that even with limited resources, the time has come for teacher evaluations to be wedded to student performance.
“A time of limited resources is exactly when we have to be asking how we use the resources most wisely to support student growth,” Zieger said. “A quality evaluation system will be able to prioritize support for teachers in the areas where it will have the most impact. Remember that Pennsylvania spends hundreds of millions per year on teacher professional development with little knowledge of exactly what a given teacher may need to become more effective. This will help solve that disconnect in a way that betters our kids.”
More than 100 districts across the state are participating in the governor’s pilot program to evaluate teachers; the School District of Philadelphia is not one of them.
Jordan has a number of other concerns about the governor’s program. He wants to know that his union members will have a clear understanding of who the evaluators will be and how they will be evaluated.
Also important to Jordan and the more than 15,000-member union is what the state’s role will be from a support standpoint if teachers are found to not be proficient.
As an example, Jordan pointed to Philadelphia’s Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) professional development program, established in the current collective bargaining agreement. The PAR program, heading into its second year, enlists expert teachers as a first-line support for struggling teachers.
“We are having success with the program,” Jordan said. “Again, no one disagrees with teachers being evaluated; teachers working with children should be good teachers. But there are some concerns that we feel have to be addressed to make the evaluations viable for us all. You can’t have a system that is set up as a sort of ‘gotcha’ program. There are a lot of issues that have to be addressed.”