The hits just keep coming to School District of Philadelphia employees. And after this latest round of massive layoffs, it’s fair to ask how many future hits district personnel can absorb.
The district has recently confirmed the latest round of layoffs, placing the reason — and blame — at the feet of the principals making the cuts.
“We are notifying approximately 290 employees, starting Friday, through the mail that these [terminations] in the schools are in response to changes made at the school level by principals,” said School District of Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard. “Primarily, [individual] principals made decisions on which positions to staff and have the power to use resources as they see needed in their schools.
“That’s what’s mostly driving the layoffs,” Gallard continued. “Some of it is in connection with the budgetary decisions made in the central office, and the loss of grants by the district is also driving some of the layoffs.”
This move puts principals in a very tough spot, forcing them to choose between an extra counselor or school nurse, while also being in the unenviable position of laying off a talented aide and assistant.
No wonder morale is so low, said Philadelphia Federation of teachers President Jerry Jordan.
“What these layoffs are a result of is schools not being given the adequate resources in the budget in order to staff the schools at same level compared to when they’re staffed normally; it’s just that simple,” Jordan said. “The people being cut are primarily what I would call support — positions not mandated by the state.”
Jordan said some principals are being forced to lay off longtime assistants, some having been with the district for decades; and since the district hasn’t notified the staffers who are in danger of losing their jobs, every non-mandated school employee will have to wait for the mail to see if they have been cut.
“Morale is very, very low, and people are anxious. We have people who take phone calls from membership all day,” Jordan said. “The hot-button question is: ‘Am I being laid off?’ And the [termination] letters will probably hit homes on Saturday. This is really upsetting a lot of people, and in some cases, they are cutting people who have been with the district since 1980 — with no warning.”
According to Jordan, the process of budgeting a school is quite straightforward; principals formulate their fiscal strategy, while the district has the ultimate veto power over the principals’ suggestions.
“Here’s an example. We have language in our contract that requires every school in the district to have at least one counselor. The operative words are ‘at least,’ because some schools have more than one counselor,” Jordan explained. “We have elementary schools with 1,300 students, so it goes without saying that it needs more than one counselor.
“But the principal doesn’t have enough teachers for 1,300 students, and will say, ‘I have to have more teachers.’”
At that point, Jordan said, the principal turns over the budget to the school district, which will then institute cuts — essentially forcing the principals to cut positions. The truly cynical will see this as a way for the district to impose cuts while not taking a great public relations hit for it.
When confronted with this way of thinking, Gallard said giving principals a sense of fiscal autonomy will only help them in the long-term; in the short, however, Gallard knows these cuts will look bad either way, but insists this is a maneuver the district does every year; not to mention this process generally falls in line with the district’s five-year reorganization blueprint’s Strategy 4 and 5, which details the moves the district must make in order to streamline operations.
“It’s a difficult call, but principals make decisions on their own budget. Some cuts we were building a firewall around; [principals] are getting the same funding, but they are just using it different. Instead of hiring someone for ‘X,’ they are hiring someone for ‘Y,’” Gallard said. “But these are not cuts from the school district’s budget. These cuts are being made at the school level, so these are decisions made by the school on where they want to invest their dollars. That is for the best for students.
“It’s unfortunate that it translates into layoffs, but principals are doing what we expect them to do,” Gallard continued. “It is a difficult call for them, and they don’t take it lightly, but their budgets basically remain the same, but principals just allocated dollars differently, based on the needs of their children.”
For Jordan, the situation isn’t so cut-and-dried.
“It is very unfair to pin this on the principals. They do this every year, saying it ‘was a school-based decision,’” said Jordan, who also noted that this is the second unceremonious mass firing the district has orchestrated — the first coming last December, when hundreds of nurses and other support staff received termination letters on Christmas Eve. “When you take human resources away from a building that were used to make schools safe for kids and support a school climate where students are able to learn and teachers able to teach, the school district is going in the opposite direction” of living up to their mission of providing safe schools, Jordan said. “This is just very alarming that as the district moves toward greater accountability for school performance, that they are not doing what is necessary to support schools in order for us to provide the educational programs for our kids.”