Often, nurses are the first line of defense for a sick child in public schools, and according to the nurses who hold weekly rallies on Wednesday outside of the School District of Philadelphia headquarters, the children they serve will be most affected by the ongoing cuts.
“The day before we broke for winter break, we received notice that 47 nurses were to be laid off, and that’s on top of the 47 or so that were laid off last year,” said longtime school nurse Eileen Duffey, one of the main organizers of the weekly rally. “So we lost close to 100 nurses; and in December, we heard the school district had to cut the budget, and it didn’t do any kind of big look at the picture, or look at the most important things that couldn’t be cut.
“They just said there had to be cuts because the school district is in the hole so badly.”
The school district was required to take drastic action after it was discovered that the district faced a $68 million dollar budget gap that had to be closed by the end of the academic fiscal year, which falls in June. To meet its financial obligations, the district had to undertake a series of painful austerity measures, including slashing many after-school programs, shuttering school buildings and attached recreation centers on weekends, furloughing per diem security personnel and cutting the number of school nurses working in the district.
Making matters worse, City Controller Alan Butkovitz spared no feelings in a scathing report recently issued by his office, stating that the controller didn’t have confidence that the school budget could turn around for this year, while setting an ominous outlook for next year’s school budget.
By taking these measures, the district has been able to cut this year’s budget gap by more than half — it now sits at $28 million.
School spokesman Fernando Gallard acknowledges the district made these cuts, but says the district had no choice.
“These are cuts we did not want to make, did not plan to take and only made them to offset the tremendous, challenging budget gap we’re facing,” Gallard said. “And we’re still working on closing the budget gap for this year, and unfortunately, it forces us to make choices we wouldn’t have made otherwise.”
Gallard said the district’s current financial woes are something school officials do not want to revisit, and that’s why these measures must be taken up now.
“It is a situation we don’t want to ever be in again,” Gallard said. “But in order to balance the budget, we had to make these difficult cuts. And we have put together a plan to make sure schools have adequate [nurse] coverage.”
The nurses’ rally outside of district headquarters has drawn the support of prominent politicians — including state Representative W. Curtis Thomas — who endorses the demonstrations.
“School nurses are intertwined in the present and future of a quality education experience,” said the lawmaker through a statement released by his office.
Duffey — a pediatric nurse for 30 years before becoming a school nurse 10 years ago — is sympathetic to the position the district finds itself in, but believes by cutting medical personnel, sick students will be left to pay the price.
“I am taking care of 1,500 students in three schools; this goes back to an old law from the 1940s that stipulates a 1,500-1 nurse-patient ratio,” Duffey said. “The national Association of Nurses says schools should have a 750-1 ratio, but that’s only a recommendation; they can’t force policy or legislation.
“I am in a school with four autistic support classes, and I am there only once a week.”
Duffey said it’s the nurses who keep all the confidential medical records of patients, and no one — including the principal — has access to them; and while other school officials are busy with groups of kids for practically the entire day, the nurse can take his or her time with a student and develop a one-on-one relationship.
“I used to be part of teams that would sit back and look at the big picture. A nurse is the only true patient-student advocate,” Duffey said. “Not that the others don’t care; but a principal has other people he has to answer to, and a teacher has to manage 33 other students. A nurse deals with one patient at a time, and is trained as a professional to advocate for the patient.
“The nurses’ eyes are the eyes that protect a vulnerable student.”
Duffey says she works in three schools — George W. Nebinger, Stephen Girard and Academy at Palumbo — and refuses to sit back while the district is hijacked by the bottom dollar.
“We’re like a colony being taken over by the state, and the School Reform Commission is at the mercy of the governor,” Duffey said. “I do not mind sticking my neck out for our children, because we have a governor is who is unbelievably mean-spirited toward vulnerable children.”
In what was either a thinly-veiled threat or a no-nonsense, frank assessment of the school district’s current financial malaise, district Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen got everyone’s attention on Tuesday when he announced that the school district will face the possibility that schoolhouse doors won’t open in September if city council doesn’t approve the controversial Asset Valuation Index (AVI) legislation, which would provide the district $94 million in funds.
Knudsen made the startling announcement during the first public hearing on the School Reform Commission’s Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools. That $94 million in additional AVI revenue has already been included in the blueprint, along with extra state revenues in fiscal years 2016 and 2017.
Given the opportunity, school district officials didn’t back away from Knudsen’s assertion — and reiterated that the district literally has nothing left to cut, and the $94 million is a must-have for the district’s survival.
“In reference to [Knudsen’s remarks], the $218 million shortfall we are projecting for the next fiscal year takes into consideration the city approving $94 million in extra revenue,” said school district spokesman Fernando Gallard. “What makes it dire is if we don’t get the $94 million, then in the fall, the budget deficit becomes $218 million plus $94 million.
“This is a conversation about reality and fact; it’s about finally stating clearly where we are financially and what our needs are,” Gallard continued. “The SRC has mandated to the district that we must be 100 percent clear and straightforward with our finances.
“The SRC has made it clear that in prior years, the district has spent more than it had, and it can no longer continue to operate this way. When Knudsen said it’s dire, we literally do not know where we will get the money to fill that hole.”
Knudsen’s remarks hinted that the district will be unable to carry a deficit of $312 into the next year, which could theoretically cause the district to basically shut down in September. Gallard refused to speculate on what public education would look like in the near-term if council doesn’t come up with the $94 million. While city council members continue to debate the merits of AVI, council president Darrell Clarke recently said he is pleased that the district is at least finally confronting its financial morass, but stressed the need for caution.
“Some aspects of it make some sense, some are of some concern, but the reality is that things have to change - and they have to change dramatically,” Clarke said. “You have to deal with teachers, and you have to deal with structure. With this new $90 million request, there is going to be something in there that reflects our viewpoint. That’s just the bottom line.”
Gallard also said there’s nothing left for the district to cut; that is it down to providing the most crucial programs, and few non-mandated services have survived the last round of cuts.
“For fiscal year 2012, we went through $700 million in cuts. We’ve had to lay off 98 nurses, school police officers, and announced were are not going to have summer school, but only credit recovery programs for seniors, so we’ve been actively cutting where we can.
“What we are saying in regard to AVI is that there is no fat left — we are down to the primary services for education.”
Veteran school nurse and vocal student services advocate Eileen Duffey has seen the hurt these measures have caused, not only on her peers that were laid off, but for the students she serves as well.
“We never said the school district was perfect. It has had funding problems going back 30 years, and now they have organized in such a way as to dismantle it,” Duffey said, who has cared for public school students for more than three decades. “We have a devastating situation on our hands, and the people who are now charged to fix it are not looking at dissecting the social situation, but looking at dollars.
“It’s heart-breaking, union-busting and undemocratic,” Duffey continued. “And everyone will pay for this travesty.”
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he doubts the teacher’s union can mount a legal defense to either the reorganization plan in general, or the particular element that calls for a $159 million reduction in personnel, including a restructured benefit and wage scale. But Jordan defended the union, noting the district’s history of mismanagement, and the prior givebacks by the PFT.
“When it comes to health care costs and pensions, for ten years, the legislature allowed school districts to pay zero into funding their pensions, and then we had the financial crisis in the country, which of course affected the pension funds, too,” Jordan said. “So now, [the state] is saying to districts across the commonwealth that they have to pay more money into the pensions.
“The SRC knew that, and it’s the school district and SRC that has been managing the district, When it comes to health care costs, it’s a major issue.”
Protestors outraged by closed door meetings on major decisions about public school funding took their message to the street Monday, demonstrating outside the site of a conference for entrepreneurs interested in investing in public education.
Sam Jones, lead organizer of Fight For Philly, said his group participated in a rally beneath the balcony of The Union League of Philadelphia because they want to expose “corporate raiders coming under the guise of helping schools and take money out of the public school system to line their own pockets.”
Jones said educational programs offered through charter schools are no better than public schools, but charter schools lack accountability. He pointed out that several charter schools have come under investigation for crimes, including fraud.
Dozens of demonstrators held up signs that protested the state’s distribution of public school funding, calling it unfair and inequitable. The signs read: “Our education is not for sale,” “No to private investors buying public schools,” “Stop building prisons, start building futures.”
The rally was organized by Karel Kilimnik and Lisa Haver, co-founders of Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, an organization of parents, community members, and school staff. They were joined by other organizations, including Fight for Philly, Youth United for Change, and the Philadelphia Student Union.
“Our fear is that parents and the community will continue to be shut out of all major decisions about school funding, how decisions are made, where the money is spent and who gets more staff and resources,” said Haver, a retired middle school teacher.
The Union League hosted a conference based on the theme, “How Donors Can Expand a City’s Great Schools,” which attracted entrepreneurs interested in investing in public education. In a prepared statement, Kilimnik said that the conference program featured local entrepreneurs Jeremy Nowak, former president of the William Penn Foundation, and Mark Gleason, director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, which has raised millions of dollars in funding for Philadelphia schools, both traditional and charter.
The two men were expected to talk about investment strategies and how to solicit for donations to select schools.
“We are coming today to educate people as to the real intent of these investors. Their goal is to make money off of our children, not to improve education for everyone,” Kilimnik said.
Eileen Duffey, a school nurse at Academy of Palumbo in South Philadelphia, said “These corporate interests are making decisions behind closed doors with no regard for the democratic process that’s supposed to be involved in education. This is an affront to democracy in a huge way.”
Duffey said demonstrators were among a small but vocal minority who want to call attention to the issue of adequate school funding for all public schools.
“Nobody is against kids getting services, but why are some kids getting services and others aren’t,” Haver said, adding that those decisions shouldn’t be left entirely to private organizations.
“There’s no discussion about these things, and it’s becoming a very secretive process,” Haver said. “It’s not just how money is being spent, but the fact that we had nothing to say about it.”
She also pointed out that organizations such as the Philadelphia Schools Partnership and William Penn Foundation are investing substantial amounts of money in schools. But schools that receive grant money are less likely to be closed under the school district’s facilities master plan. The School Reform Commission, which runs the school district, closed 23 schools in June as part of an effort to cut operating costs.
There’s a new reality for thousands of Philadelphia public school students as they feel the true impact of budget cuts, and discontent is growing.
The so-called “doomsday budget,” named because of deep funding cuts that have led to layoffs and forced cutbacks in programs and services, is manifesting itself in ways that are tangible, from the college-bound seniors applying to colleges but find their high school counselor is less available because they’ve been assigned more students, sometimes at multiple schools. A full-time school nurse is no longer guaranteed at every school every day of the week, and that may make parents think twice about sending a child who feels sick to school, and make students feel less comfortable doing so.
“That’s the value of a school nurse,” said Eileen Duffey, who works as a nurse part-time at the Academy at Palumbo High School in South Philadelphia. “That’s what’s what people don’t understand. It’s a lot easier to get out of bed if you know someone is there to support and help.”
Many students visit the school nurse for relief from cold and flu symptoms, seasonal allergies, and asthma — but they also may need to turn to an adult about female issues and other special needs which may require medication or referral to a medical specialist, Duffey said.
Outraged parents are documenting their complaints against the school district in the hope of triggering a state investigation into whether schools are being run in compliance with state codes. A new web site for logging formal complaints, www.myphillyschools.com, was announced at an Oct. 3 news conference in City Hall.
Fernando Gallard, chief information officer for the school district, encouraged parents to air their concerns about school conditions with a teacher or school principal as a first step. “That’s part of our job in the district — to make sure we’re providing for our students,” he said.
The issues being reported by parents and students are symptomatic of a school district being starved of funding. Duffey called it a “disgrace” for elected officials to let the public school system become so dysfunctional in a move toward turning over the district to privatization, which was attempted unsuccessfully a few years before the state took control in 2001.
“Our governor is OK with it. The mayor is OK with it, regardless of what he’s saying. People on the front line know it,” said Duffey, who last month protested against corporate reformers who make major investments in organizations that pour millions of dollars in philanthropic support to public schools outside of the public eye.
Chronic underfunding of public schools is the root cause of the district’s financial problems, advocates say, and the quality of school programs are being affected by the trickle-down effect of budget cuts, resulting in layoffs that left behind a bare-bones staff.
“One person can’t do it,” said Christine Wiggins, founder of Imhotep Institute Charter High School in East Germantown. “If they stop cutting funding, there wouldn’t have to be intervention because they would have staff to push students who lack it at home.”
If public schools received half the amount in funding dedicated to prisons, Wiggins said, conditions in public schools and student performance would improve dramatically. As an example, she said the city has budgeted money for construction of an ice skating rink in Center City while the school district struggles to provide adequate staffing and service.
Lisa Haver and Karen Kilimnik, co-founders of the Philadelphia Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, are among critics who say closed-door decisions affect which schools receive additional funding over and above traditional revenue sources such as federal, state and local government.
Schools that receive investment money can effect the local decision-making process because they contend are more likely to receive favorable treatment. For example, schools that have received significant investments are less likely to be considered for closure, giving them an advantage over other schools.
“They have amassed an extraordinary amount of money. They can have a dramatic impact on public policy with a particular point of view,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, which advocates for quality education.
She stated that change is needed to address low performing schools that educate high numbers of children from low-income households. She believes the solution rests on a three-part formula: retaining quality teachers, maintaining a safe learning environment, and offering a sound curriculum.
Meanwhile, the school district’s payment to charter schools account for 35 percent of its $2.2 billion spending plan, and is projected to continue spiking upward. With the district obligated to pay an additional $280 million for debt service, there’s roughly $1.3 million left for traditional public schools, much of it going to teachers salaries and benefits.