Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan wasted little time in blasting the School Reform Commission’s decision to expand its 2012–2013 school year charter school offerings in the face of an epic budgetary gap, approaching $300 million for the coming school year.
Writing in his blog, Jordan ridiculed Office of Charter, Partnership and New Schools Deputy Chief Thomas Darden’s recent decision, saying Darden and the SRC are going back to the sort of decision-making that led to the current malaise.
“[Last] Friday, the district’s charter school office chief conceded that the charter expansions approved so far this year could cost $139 million over five years — $100 million more than he originally stated. So, on top of a looming $282 million deficit, the school district is spending another $38 million, and making $100 million math mistakes? Clearly, the charter school expansion agenda has trumped fiscal soundness,” read Jordan’s statement, in part. “The current deficit is a major obstacle to reforming a school system that was already struggling to serve our children. With a new projected deficit of over $300 million, it’s time to abandon this high-cost, low-return reform model our kids have been subjected to. Kudos to School Reform Commissioners Joseph Dworetzky and Lorene Cary for voting against adding another $139 million to the school deficit, and advocating for a research-backed, school-based approach to education reform.
“We can save money and get better results by working with and supporting our own educators and administrators. They, after all, are trained to do what we’re trying to accomplish: devise strategies to give our children the education they need,” Jordan’s statement continued. “The District cannot afford the latest round of charter expansions, but if the SRC insists on spending millions of dollars, our students and teachers could certainly benefit more from additional classroom materials and technology; safer school buildings; afterschool programs and social services.”
The district currently has 80 charter schools on its roster.
School Reform Commission Spokesman Fernando Gallard said that Darden had misunderstood the question, and took umbrage at the assumption the district doesn’t know what it is doing with its funds.
“Well, I think it needs to be put in context. The $38 million was for a specific number of schools, not for all of the schools under consideration,” Gallard said. “What happened was Darden was asked about the costs of seats. When he answered the question, he was looking at those schools and not [the total of charter] schools.
“That $38 million, Darden was talking about the cost of adding four charter schools and not all of the charters under consideration,” Gallard continued. “So from the beginning of this process, when Darden was doing his presentation of what costs might look like before expansions, he put a number of $100 million total.
“So the idea that the district did not know what the possible costs of the expansion would be is not correct.”
Still, Gallard confirmed that the district will spend $139 million for the expansion of its charter school program, and it is that number and the methodology involved which has irked both Jordan and legislators.
Lawmakers statewide have sought to reform charter school oversight and funding. House Bill 2352 is but one of several pieces of legislation that will add layers of checks and balances to the charter school system, as would HB 2364, otherwise known as the Charter and Cyber Charter Reform law.
State Rep. James Roebuck has been a proponent of both pieces of legislation and of charter school reform on the whole, and believes the SRC would do well to rethink its position on funding charter school expansion.
“I’ve had no direct communication on that issue [with the SRC], but it seems to me, given the economic pressures on the district, they would be wise to assess where they are going,” Roebuck said, “and assess where [the district] needs to be before expanding charters or doing anything else.”
Roebuck had intimated that charter school reform will be a main topic once the General Assembly reconvenes in September.
HB 2364, introduced by Rep. Mike Fleck and endorsed by Roebuck, would severely reduce the statewide funding of charter and cyber charter schools.
“At a time when public schools are still coping with last year’s state education funding cuts and local property taxpayers want to avoid another round of trickle-down tax hikes, it’s only fair to taxpayers for all schools to play by the same rules,” Roebuck said when he announced his support of the measure. “These reforms [included in HB 2364] … provide this relief immediately to school districts and their taxpayers. These reforms would provide at least $45.8 million in savings for the coming school year, and probably much more than that.”
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell is a sharp critic of the suggestions put forth by the Boston Consulting Group, the firm the School District of Philadelphia hired for a top-down assessment of the district’s operations — and to formulate recommendations to remedy the district’s ills.
In fact, Blackwell is so concerned about the district implementing BCG’s proposals that she has called for a series of public meetings with Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan — also a vocal critic of BGC’s plans — to discuss and properly inform parents and caregivers of the coming changes.
“As chair of the City of Philadelphia City Council Committee on Education, I am, of course, committed to providing superior educational opportunities for our students. I have and will always advocate for the highest standards and best practices that will enhance the quality and substance of education for all our young scholars,” Blackwell wrote in a letter to Jordan, and subsequently released to the media. “As you are aware, the Boston Consulting Group’s report to the School Reform Commission titled, ‘Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools: Key Findings and Recommendations,’ promulgates practices, objectives and outcomes that will significantly impact the City of Philadelphia entire; each student, each parent, each teacher and each bus driver now stands on the proverbial edge of change, not knowing what the future holds.
“And so, I believe, and I’m sure you will agree, we need to reach out to the public in order to ensure that they are being informed and thus, better prepared for the coming changes,” Blackwell continued in her note. “Therefore, as chair of the City Council Committee on Education, I do hereby formally proclaim the necessity for public hearings to be held as soon as possible concerning the aforementioned report.”
The BGC report includes various cost cutting measures that, if acted upon, will further diminish the district’s programming. The report suggests the district should shift to a portfolio management model; expand the charter school program; decentralize headquarters and operations, and move forward with a privatization plan which has the potential to alter the look and feel of every non-mandated program or service the district offers. Only approved businesses enrolled in the district’s Achievement Network will be able to bid on contracts to provide those services.
One such service would be busing. The BCG report suggests the district could save $22 million annually if it enacts a three-phase plan — which includes bringing in a management team to operate the buses.
BGC’s report also states the district could save upwards of $40 million annually if the SRC closed 50 schools; this is in line with suggestions included in the Facilities Master Plan.
Jordan was unavailable for comment as of Tribune deadline, but Jordan assailed BCG’s findings and recommendations on a recent blog posting, calling into question BCG’s merits of making education-related decisions, and for the plan’s silence on giving back to the students and district employees.
“The BCG’s plan is quick to point out schools’ low student performance (by the standards of the district’s rather unreliable Student Performance Index), but ignores key contributing factors. There’s no recommendation for a strategy to address the extreme poverty many of our children are living in, and how that affects classroom performance,” Jordan wrote. “While there’s plenty of tough talk about teacher work rules and changing the compensation structure, there are no thoughts about what is needed to support, develop and retain our teachers. To be fair, the BCG didn’t actually interview any classroom teachers for its recommendations, so we shouldn’t be surprised that there are no substantive ideas to improve teaching and learning … Improving teaching and learning in our schools is a complex process that requires input from educators and communities as well as business groups.”
School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr. affirmed and elaborated on the December announcement of a massive district-wide reorganization with the release of his long-promised “Action Plan v 1.0,” which goes into great detail on the benchmarks the district hopes to achieve.
Hite’s plan also clarifies the method by which to gauge the District’s progress, by tracking the percentage of students who: score a combined 1550 on the SAT/21 on the ACT; score at least 3 on the AP exam or 4 on the IB exam; achieve a grade of “C” or better in geometry; who obtains a “B” or better in algebra I and, finally, score at the advanced level PSSA reading and math exams.
“This action plan emphasizes solutions to basic problems based on evidence and facts,” Hite said via a statement released by the District. “We must use data and research more effectively than we’ve done in the past. We are getting back to the basics — doing what works and doing it well.”
The plan revolves around two “anchor goals,” the first of which is to improve academic outcomes for students both in the traditional public schools and the charter schools the District facilitates — the second ensuring the fiscal stability and sustainability of the district.
Along with the two main anchor goals, Hite’s plan includes six strategies: achieve and sustain financial balance; improve student outcomes; develop a system of excellent schools; identify and develop committed, capable people; become a parent and family-centered organization; and, lastly, become an aligned, accountable organization. Each separate strategy has its own subset of checkpoints that must be reached along the way for the strategies to take effect and for the two anchor goals to be reached.
The third strategy alone — developing a system of excellent schools — has nine checkpoints, including improving school safety and climate, as well as implementing the recommendations in the Facilities Master Plan.
The Facilities Master Plan and the recommendations Hite publicized last month have drawn considerable criticism from a litany of grassroots organizations, including the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, which released a statement blasting the Action Plan.
“The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools appreciates the diligence that Superintendent Hite and his team have shown in compiling their action plan. Some elements of that plan — meeting the needs of special education students, enhancing support for English language learners and encouraging parent/family input — are welcome commitments,” read the statement from PCAPS. “However, it is unfortunate that Dr. Hite and the School District continue to insist upon closing dozens of local schools as a central part of this effort. We acknowledge that some of these proposed closures may turn out to be justified in the long run. However, until a community impact study is completed and released to the public, taking the radical step of closing more than three dozen schools — most of them in already struggling neighborhoods — is drastically premature and potentially harmful to communities across the City.
“Instead of shuttering schools, slashing jobs and displacing thousands of students, we should be working to turn these schools into community hubs that partner with nonprofits, public officials, universities, hospitals and the business community to offer full wraparound services that meet a range of local needs.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan — long a critic of the District’s austerity measures — said while Hite’s Action Plan took quite a deal of heavy-lifting to complete and that the PFT agrees with some of Hite’s findings, Jordan remains disappointed in the district’s overall approach.
“The troubling part is that what could be a promising start to meaningful education reform is already jeopardized by a commitment to the “austerity model” of education reform. It doesn’t cost much to form an idea, like changing assessments of student performance or providing more challenging coursework. Providing basic classroom materials and the educators to implement these changes, however, will require a significant increase in resources,” Jordan said. “Our neighborhood public schools are the victim of a decade of deep and sustained cuts to education funding. Over time, these cuts haven’t done anything to improve education, and have led to an exodus from Philadelphia’s public schools that have laid the groundwork for yet another round of building closures.”
Hite addressed the financial ramifications in the Action Plan, noting that the District must balance its books if it is to deliver on the promises of academic achievement.
“The District has recurring expenses that exceed its revenues by over $250 million per year, amounting to a $1.35 billion dollar deficit over the next five years. (It is important to note that the budget crisis can quickly become a cash crisis if the structural deficit is not addressed in time for the 2013–2014 budget.)
This deficit was created by a confluence of factors — reduced state funding, a broken system of local tax assessment, charter-driven growth in the total public school population without new revenue and failure to reduce spending commensurate with the reduction in revenue,” read a portion of the Plan. “Though the District has made significant cuts to operating costs in recent years, our expenses are increasing due in part to structural personnel costs (such as those incurred from employee pensions and healthcare), and ‘stranded’ overhead costs (the costs we must continue to cover even when students move between schools or out of District-run schools).
In order to remain true to our anchor goal on academic outcomes, we must ensure financial viability and sustainability by achieving the savings detailed in the Five Year Financial Plan and make smarter decisions about how we use our resources.”
The District will convene nine community meetings this month to apprise students, parents and stakeholders on the Action Plan, with the first meeting scheduled for 6 this evening at Dobbins High School, 2150 W. Lehigh Ave. The other meetings will be held on Wednesday, January 9 at Edison High School, 151 W. Luzerne St.; Tuesday, January 15 at Martin Luther King High School, 6100 Stenton Ave.; Wednesday, January 16 at Bartram High School, 2401 S. 67th St.; Tuesday, January 22 at Overbrook High School, 5898 Lancaster Ave.; Wednesday, January 23 at University City High School, 3601 Filbert St.; Thursday, January 24 at Martin Luther King High School; Tuesday, January 29 at South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St., and Wednesday, January 30 at Northeast High School, 1601 Cottman Ave. All meetings begin at 6 p.m.
“This will not be the final statement on how I will operate throughout my time as superintendent, nor should you expect a dazzling array of ideas with no plan for action,” Hite wrote in the Action Plan’s executive summary. “Given the challenging reality of the District’s finances, this document intends to signal our priorities in light of what evidence and research tell us will provide the best return on the public’s investment.”
In making multiple visits to Philadelphia, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has shown he isn’t afraid to take the fight deep inside a longtime Democratic stronghold. And Romney’s campaign is attacking President Barack Obama’s stance on the one issue most critical to the majority of Philadelphians: public education.
Romney visited Guion S. Bluford Elementary School in West Philadelphia — a Renaissance School matched with a “turnaround” team led by Universal Companies and its founder, Kenny Gamble — on Thursday. In declaring that African-American schools need more money, Romney ripped a page from Obama’s playbook by bringing the conversation to the group of people affected the most.
The Republican presidential candidate visited the school a day after declaring education is the “civil rights issue of our era.”
Romney repeated that declaration during the school visit, but struggled to defend his view that class sizes aren’t a major factor in educational success. Local African-American leaders also said his push for more two-parent families isn’t realistic in their community.
As of press time, officials with Universal haven’t returned calls seeking comment. The School District of Philadelphia also wasn’t aware of Romney’s visit. Bluford sits in City Councilman Curtis Jones’ 4th district, and during Thursday’s Council meeting, Jones voiced his displeasure at both Romney’s low-key visit, and the presidential hopeful’s stance on education.
“Unbeknownst to many people [Romney] was here this morning at Bluford Elementary school where he was espousing his ‘class sizes don’t matter’ and everybody knows, even internally, size matters — class sizes,” Jones said, thanking his Republican colleagues on council for not meeting up with the former Massachusetts governor.
Jones said he only became aware of Romney’s visit through an update on KWY newsradio. Mayor Michael Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams joined a rally outside of Bluford, condemning Romney’s stances — and for creeping quietly into Philadelphia.
In advance of his visit, Romney and his election campaign have simultaneously attacked Obama’s stance as elitist while urging districts to do away teacher unions.
“You know, President Obama likes to talk about how he’s for the underprivileged, but when it comes to the money that comes from the teachers union, he’s putting that campaign cash ahead of the needs of our kids. We have to recognize it’s time to put kids first, to get education on track by giving people greater choice in schools, by making sure we reward the very best teachers with great careers and rising income,” Romney said via a statement released by his campaign. “We know what to do to make our schools better.”
Those remarks mirror what Romney recently told Fox News’ Stave Doocy. When asked about the president’s education agenda, Romney wasted little time in going into attack mode, pointing to a Washington, D.C., school choice program that Romney claims Obama and the teachers union shuttled.
“We have a teachers’ union that too often stands in the way of the kind of reforms that would make education work. We know, for instance, in Washington, D.C., that school choice there helped immeasurably with young people - improving their quality of learning and their skills, and yet the President shut down the program,” Romney said on the news program. “We’ve got to put the unions behind, and put the kids first.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan assailed the notion that teacher unions are standing in the way of school reform. Jordan noted that the PFT has sacrificed and produced several rounds of givebacks during recent contract discussions. Jordan said there are other factors in union negotiations that either Romney doesn’t know about or fails to acknowledge.
“We have consistently [partnered with the district on cuts] and I would defy anyone from the board who suggests we haven’t been very effective in working with the district to keep health care costs as low as they can possibly be through negotiations,” Jordan said, during a recent editorial board meeting at The Tribune. “That’s a reality that all organizations have to build in; you shouldn’t ask people to work and not have health care.”
Lis Smith, a spokeswoman with President Obama’s reelection campaign, quickly responded to Romney’s visit to Philadelphia — and to the assertions Romney made; striking at Romney’s often-criticized business models and asking if the presidential hopeful will apply the same tactics to education as he did while at Bain Capital.
“When he’s in Philadelphia today, will Mitt Romney tell the truth about how he wants to apply Romney Economics to education? As we’ve seen throughout Mitt Romney’s career in both the private and public sectors, Romney Economics is all about the short term,” Smith said via a statement released by the Obama reelection campaign. “We’ve already seen what Romney Economics meant for Massachusetts students — larger class sizes, a de-emphasis on critical early education, teachers laid off, and in one year alone, the second-largest per-pupil cuts in the nation … these aren’t the priorities Americans want in our President.”
Tribune staff writer Eric Mayes and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
A 27-year-old West Philadelphian has launched a challenge to state Rep. James Roebuck, who has held the 188th Legislative District seat for almost as long as she’s been alive.
Fatimah Muhammad hopes to capture the seat and bring a fresh perspective to the state house.
“It’s time to be able to let fresh ideas, new perspectives come to the table,” she said. “I am young, with fresh ideas, and I’m a woman. There is a time for change, and the time is now.”
She will be on the April 24 ballot.
All of Muhammad’s priorities hinge on one thing — education.
“I’m passionate about education,” she said, noting that she has been an educator and community organizer.
If the district’s children are properly educated, jobs and safer streets will follow, she said, noting that those three things are her top priorities for the district.
Muhammad faces stiff competition from Roebuck, who has held the seat for 25 years and has powerful political support.
“We are going to send Jim back to Harrisburg,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said at a recent gathering of Roebuck’s supporters. “Nothing beats experience.”
It is Muhammad’s first attempt at running for public office.
She chose to run for state representative as a way to demonstrate to young people that aiming high is important.
“I want them to know their potential — so I say: ‘Aim high. Aim big,’” she said. “I know that as a state rep, I can make a difference.”
However, she said her professional and personal experiences have prepared her to represent the people of West Philadelphia.
“I know what it’s like to be hungry and to feel left behind. I said that if I ever get out of that situation, that I would do anything in my power to make sure other children won’t go through what I went through,” she said. “Policy for me is not theoretical, it’s personal.”
Too often, she said, politicians forget that.
“We’re representing real people,” she said.
As someone who has worked for 10 years as a community activist, Muhammad is confident that she can navigate the partisan atmosphere in Harrisburg.
“I’m someone who’s been doing things in the community,” she said. “I’m not a stranger to challenging conversation.”
Her experience has given her a pragmatism she said will serve her constituents well in the capitol.
“I’m not some idealist who read in a book how to do this. I’ve lived it. I’m a fighter, I fought my way to where I am,” she said.
Muhammad grew up in Plainfield, N.J. and has lived in the Clark Park area for about 10 years. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in sociology in 2006.
The reaction to the School District’s release earlier this week of the controversial Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools has been mixed, with many local and state elected officials either willing to give the plan a chance, think only a few elements of the plan will work, or wish to scrap the plan altogether.
The blueprint, crafted by the district’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen and submitted to the School Reform Commission on Tuesday, calls for sweeping changes — chief among them a complete reorganization of district headquarters, the closure of 64 public schools, and austerity measures which require a multi-million dollar union give back.
The plan also calls for the establishment of a privatization component — called “Achievement Networks” — which will provide certain services to the schools left standing. Overall, if every element of the plan falls in place, district officials believe these measures will lead to a balanced budget at the conclusion of the five-year plan.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown, co-chair of the education committee and herself once an elementary school teacher, praised the SRC for turning its full attention to the matter, and urged patience as the details of the plan are worked out.
“The School Reform Commission released a bold plan that would dramatically alter what education looks like and feels like to young people in our city. Whether this paradigm shift is the appropriate course of action remains to be seen, but as leaders, it deserves our full attention and respect—we cannot be dismissive about this new budget reality facing the School District of Philadelphia,” Reynolds Brown said. “The devil is always in the details. That notion will absolutely apply as we analyze the data and hear from school district officials as well as those who would be impacted. What does this do to class sizes? How do we make sure our students are not treated like numbers? Will the leadership of localized ‘Achievement Networks’ look like Philadelphia when it comes to diversity? These are the preliminary questions I will be asking.”
Knudsen and SRC chairman Pedro Ramos have repeatedly stated that the organization itself, and businesses participating in the Achievement Networks program will face tight scrutiny, and can be replaced if their products and outcomes are unsatisfactory.
“We need fundamental change and focus on the children and their needs,” Knudsen said the day the blueprint was released. We are righting the ship financially, and finally addressing the change we need to make. But it’s also about a process that is not simple.”
Complicating the process is the blueprint’s plan to shave $156 million from personnel, in the form of a restructured wage scale and benefit program.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who says the union membership already did its share of sacrificing when the district asked for several cuts over recent years, released a scathing statement, accusing the district of gross mismanagement.
“This restructuring plan has nothing to do with raising student achievement,” Jordan’s statement said. “The district provided a business model, not a research-based plan for turning around or supporting schools. By closing 64 schools, and transferring more and more children out of publicly accountable, neighborhood schools and into charter, cyber-charter and private schools, the School District of Philadelphia is saying it no longer wants to be in the business of educating children. It would rather manage a ‘portfolio’ than do the hard work my members do every day educating children. This is a cynical, right-wing and market-driven plan to privatize public education, to force thousands of economically disadvantaged families to select from an under-funded hodge-podge of EMO- and charter-company-run schools, and to convert thousands of professional and family-sustaining positions into low-paying, high-turnover jobs.”
The blueprint also calls for $122 million in cuts to the district’s overall operations, and a $149 million reduction in public charter school funding; that reduction would equal a 7 percent loss in per-pupil funding.
Knudsen cited New York City’s public school reformation as an example of school reform that works, but education expert Diane Ravitch said that “New York City has not had any great success.” Ravitch, in town earlier this week for the conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook that “New York used to boast of dramatic test score gains, but they disappeared in 2010.”
“They’ve gone through four reorganizations,” Ravitch said. “New York has changed so much I don’t know what version Philadelphia is talking about.”
Ravitch, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under several administrations, called plans for privatilization an “abdication of public responsibility.”
“I didn’t see anything that would cause learning to improve, just a lot of rhetoric that schools would achieve more than they used to because we say so,” Ravitch said. “If you really want to improve schools, you have to do something about teaching and learning. This is just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The blueprint as presented also raises other concerns. Knudsen said that even if the SRC adopts the plan, the district — or whatever remains in its place — wouldn’t actualize any savings until fiscal year 2013; and most of the plan hinges on the $90 million-plus the district is slated to get through the equally controversial Actual Value Initiative – or AVI. These are revenues from an adjusted real estate tax plan. However, AVI is now bogged down in council, and it’s hard to say if or when the school district will receive those funds – or if will be in the $90 million range school officials hope for.
City Council President Darrell Clarke had general praise for the SRC taking this important step, but was careful to note the limits of council’s power in overseeing the district’s spending.
“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 structures.”
Emphasizing that he expected the plan to change, Clarke said he supported its basic premise, and the fact that it laid out a long term plan for the district.
Clarke lauded school commissioners for being open to suggestion from council.
Council is in the process of analyzing Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget, going over it line by line, which includes the assumption that the school district will receive about $94 million more in property tax revenues this year as the city moves toward a property tax system based on full market valuation.
With council expected to give an increased allocation to the district, Clarke expects members to exert more influence on how that money is spent.
That has not always happened in the past. Last year, under the leadership of former school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the district coaxed $53 million in additional funding from council. But, many council members felt she tricked them when it became clear after the fact that despite Ackerman’s statements to the contrary during the budget process, the district did have money to pay for full-day kindergarten. Ackerman used the threat of eliminating full-day kindergarten as her primary bargaining chip in budget talks with council.
“With this new $90 million request, there is going to be something in there that reflects our viewpoint. That’s just the bottom line,” Clarke said, adding that with new, more cooperative commissioners, he expected the SRC to include some of council’s suggestions.
“They’ve listened to our concerns and listened to our suggestions to this point,” he said.
Ultimately, spending decisions must be made by the SRC.
“Our role is limited,” Clarke said. “We’re simply viewed as the person who is supposed to say ‘aye’ when it comes to the school district budget. That’s essentially what we’ve been.”
While city council debates the merits of the blueprint, State Representative Dwight Evans can do little more than shake his head at this current mess. Evans urged for school reform almost two decades ago, when he submitted both the “School Reform and Accountability Proposal” and drafted a school reform bill for the House in 1997. The blueprint Knudsen submitted bears striking resemblance to many of the suggestions Evans either made through his proposal, or through the Neighborhood School Network intuitive.
“They have a lot of moving parts…there’s some things the state has to do and some things they have to do locally, and there are some things I am not for. For example, anything that would squeeze the aspect of choice around parents and kids, I would not be for,” said Evans, a longtime supporter of the charter school movement. “It flies in the face of being a child-centered system. Because how can you say, on one hand, these students get choice; but on the other hand, stifle choice for everybody else?
“Those are just two of the criticisms I would have,” Evans continued, noting that he agrees it was time for the district to act, but will fight any cuts to charter school funding. “If this is supposed to be about children and parents and not about a dysfunctional system, then in my view, anything these people try to do on the backs of charters is counter-productive. When you look at the numbers, they are basically trying to use charters to balance their budget.”
Staff Writer Eric Mayes contributed to this report.
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.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Education released a list of the failing schools in the state, and of the 406 schools on the list, 177 of them are managed by the School District of Philadelphia.
The PDE released the list in an effort to educate parents and caregivers of the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, which allows them to transfer students out of those academically failing schools and enroll the student into a school of the parents’ choosing; the parent will then be reimbursed the costs involved with the transfer, such as transportation and other expenses. The list contains the lowest 15 percent of elementary and secondary schools, based on the aggregate math and reading scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams for the 2011-12 school year. This list has the capacity to affect 240,000 students throughout the state.
Charter schools, career and technical centers where not included on this list, although the PDE was recently ordered by the United States Department of Education to recalculate the Adequate Yearly Progress results for the state’s charter schools. That recalculation resulted in a little more than 20 city charters making AYP for the prior school year.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan assailed both the plan and the list, and was incensed at the considerations exempting charter schools.
“If the Corbett administration keeps cutting funding to public education, we can expect to see even more schools on their list of ‘low performers.’ Schools cannot get better when they are consistently deprived of needed funds for materials, programs and supports for students and educators,” Jordan said via a statement released by the PFT. “If this is a law for all public schools, then why are charter schools exempt from accountability and scrutiny under this voucher scheme? As they did with the teacher evaluation law, the PDE has once again given charter schools a pass at the expense of traditional public schools. If the goal was truly to improve education, then every public school would be held to the same standards of performance.”
The program also provides tax breaks, in the form of credits, for businesses that invest in the program and contribute to an affiliated Opportunity Scholarship Organization.
According to the PDE, students who live within the catchment of any of those listed schools are eligible for this scholarship, if their family income is less than $75,000 plus $12,000 for each household dependent. Families can receive $8,500 per student – with the amount rising to $15,000 for special-education students.
A likely reimbursable expense would be transportation, which was a “concern” for the district, said School District of Philadelphia Spokesman Fernando Gallard.
“While the idea is to provide parents with the opportunity to go to other schools and give them a scholarship, transportation is a something we identified as a concern,” Gallard said. “According to the program, the responsible school district must provide transportation within ten miles of Philadelphia.” Gallard explained that if a student lives up to ten miles outside of Philadelphia, the district will provide transportation to the student, with upper-class students receiving SEPTA passes and younger students receiving yellow bus transport. Gallard said those transportation laws are already on the books in Pennsylvania.
Of the 177 district schools on the list, only two schools – Smith Elementary, at 1900 Wharton Street and Hackett Elementary, 2161 E. York Street – are not on district superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr.’s list of proposed school closings included in Hite’s sweeping “Action Plan v. 1.0,” which outlined the reconfiguration of the district’s portfolio.
Proponents of school choice will certainly embrace the publication of the list, as the PDE also mandates the district also provides scholarship information on its website and at the district’s Education Center.
The district’s website - http://www.phila.k12.pa.us/opportunity-scholarships/ - provides an overview of the program, a list of eligible schools and a school finder tool to assist parents.
Gallard said controls of the tabulation method and the scholarship program itself is completely facilitated by the PDE, but the district will support any measure that provides educational options for parents.
“This is a program completely and totally managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and all we can say is that we are in support of programs that make choice available to parents,” Gallard said. “We complied with a request from the PDE that we put information on our website regarding the program. And on our website, there’s also a link to take parents to the state’s [Opportunity Scholarship tax Credit program] website.”
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.”
Mayor, community groups, head of teachers union welcome new superintendent
According to early reports, the School Reform Commission seems to have gotten it right with the selection of career educator Dr. William R. Hite Jr. as its next School District of Philadelphia Superintendent.
A myriad of stakeholders unanimously hailed the SRC for its choice, giving embattled school officials rare praise.
“Today, we take a giant step toward providing safe, high quality educational opportunities for all Philadelphia children,” said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos last Friday, when the decision had been reached. “Dr. Hite is an eminent educator and a proven transformative leader.”
Hite Jr. comes from the Prince George’s County Public Schools system, Maryland’s second-largest school district with an enrollment of 135,000 and a budget of $1.6 billion.
The SRC has promised to release the details of Hite Jr.’s contract as soon as it is finalized.
Nutter, kept abreast at every stage in the superintendent search, also praised Hite Jr. for his education acumen and dedication to students.
“I was very impressed with Dr. Hite’s passion and commitment to educating children, support for the professional development of teachers and principals, and his dedication to working with the broader Philadelphia community,” Nutter said in a joint statement released by the SRC. “He understands that a high performing, high expectation system of schools is critical to the future of the City of Philadelphia. I would like to thank Wendell Pritchett for leading this effort by chairing the search committee and to all of the members of the community who attended meetings, offered advice and were involved in this thorough process.
High-ranking members of City Council were equally impressed with the new superintendent’s education acumen and his straightforward, yet affable nature. While Hite Jr. seems at ease in Philadelphia, even with taking on such a monumental challenge, veteran members of Council expect Hite to deliver on the hype.
“I am very pleased. He was my choice — and not that the other guy couldn’t do the job — but [Hite Jr.] was my pick from the beginning,” said Education Committee Chair Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, noting that Hite Jr. was very forthcoming about the problems identified in the district, including combating low morale and dealing with special education issues. “But I am interested in what he plans to do about crime and truancy, and how he wants to handle alternative education for the kids who don’t make it out of regular classes.
“We look forward to the opportunity to directly engage him.”
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, co-chair of Council’s education committee, echoed Blackwell’s sentiments.
“I believe the background of Dr. Hite is important, as he has served as an educator, principal and superintendent. He faced numerous and similar challenges as the Superintendent in Prince George’s County School District that we face here in Philadelphia,” Reynolds Brown said. “That history will be vital and inform how he tackles the numerous budget and academic issues that confront the Philadelphia School District. He also seems well aware that the district cannot face the problems that it faces on an island — that it takes a community effort of all stakeholders. I appreciate that approach. I look forward to working with him as we move the needle forward for our students.”
To form that relationship with students and teachers, Hite Jr. must first form a relationship with the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union. Previous superintendents had, at best, lukewarm relationships with the union, but PFT President Jerry Jordan seems willing to start anew with Hite.
“On behalf of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the city’s educators and staff, I congratulate and welcome Dr. William R. Hite as he assumes the role of Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. In a time of great upheaval for our schools, we are hopeful that Dr. Hite’s appointment signals the beginning of stability and clarity that has been lacking for many months,” Jordan said in a statement released by the PFT. “Dr. Hite’s background as an educator and administrator in urban school districts should serve him well as he navigates the unique challenges facing Philadelphia’s Public Schools. The PFT looks forward to collaborating with the new superintendent to ensure our students and teachers are given the support, tools and conditions that foster high quality teaching and learning.”
Leaders with the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity — long a watchdog organization in the superintendent search — have yet to meet with Hite, but its leadership is looking forward to working with the new schools chief.
“I have not had the opportunity to hear or meet with Dr. Hite, however, some Black clergy, our general secretary and others, have met with him and conveyed that Dr. Hite was very charismatic, and his presentation was very good,” said Black Clergy President Rev. Terrence Griffith, referring to the recent community forum Hite Jr. attended. “It seems that he has done a tremendous job in Prince George’s County in terms of resuscitating that school district.
“I don’t know if being charismatic qualifies somebody, but it goes a long way in reaching a lot of people,” Griffith continued, “but if those people who attended the forum are correct, then the SRC has chosen wisely.”