Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Playing Chicken with Philadelphia School Funding


The last few months have been pretty devastating for the state of public education in Philadelphia.  At the beginning of March, despite impassioned pleas from students, parents, teachers, and community members, the School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to shutter 23 schools.  

At the end of May the SRC again convened, heard testimony from a long list of folks concerned about the fate of the city’s public schools, and proceeded to approve a “doomsday budget”.  This $2.3 billion budget includes the elimination of art and music classes, extracurricular activities, and sports.  It also necessitates the termination of hundreds of teachers, aides, assistant principals, NTAs, and counselors. While each member of the SRC and the Superintendent expressed dismay with this budget, all but one voted to approve it, stressing that the District must “live within its means”.  This phrase struck a raw nerve with many school employees (myself included) as the District recently awarded a massive contract to testing giant Pearson, gave raises to many central office employees, and created a number of new top-level administrative positions.  The use of the phrase “live within our means” prompted one teacher to ask why 440 (the District’s beautiful, gigantic headquarters at 440 N. Broad Street) continued to operate its air conditioning.  She reminded the Superintendent that many schools don’t have air condition and “every penny counts”. I think there’s only a bit of hyperbole in this teacher’s statement.  How can the District administration even begin to talk about austerity and living within our means when they’re sitting in a half-empty monument to excessive spending (i.e. 400 N. Broad). 

The looming final move of devastation took place on Friday when 3,783 of the District’s 19,530 employees received termination notices. These notices went out to everyone from teachers to food service workers, assistant principals to counselors, custodians to support staff.  In all, 676 teachers, 283 counselors, 127 assistant principals, 1202 noon-time aides, 307 secretaries, and a host ofother positions will be laid off as of July 1. The Philly Teacher Action Group has taken up an effort to demonstrate the human side of these terminations through the “Faces of the Layoffs” project. Check it out, it’s pretty powerful. 

All of these moves by the District (particularly the most recent two) are motivated by the projected $304 million budget shortfall facing the SDP.  This shortfall developed for a variety of reasons, including poor long-term financial management, funding cuts at the state and city level, the end of federal stimulus money, and the exposition of school choice options (charters and cyber schools), but regardless of the cause it is no surprise and is nothing new for the School District of Philadelphia which has faced budget crunches around this time of year for the last several years. 

What lies beneath all of this austerity talk of “doomsday budgets” and layoffs is a game of political chicken.  In the past it has played out like this:

Round 1:
 - The District says that it needs more money.
 - The State says no.
 - The Mayor says something non-comittal like we need to support good schools, but doesn’t want to raise taxes.

Round 2:
 - The District says, “we need more money or we’re not going to be able to operate”.
 - The State says no.
 - The Mayor rebukes the Governor and proposes some “innovative” way to raise money for the District (this year it was raising taxes on cigarettes and liquor by the glass, in the past it has been the soda tax and a host of other things).

Round 3:
 - The District moves forward with closures, bare-bones budgets and layoffs in an attempt to show what is happening without more funds. 
 - The next two moves belong to the City and the State. 
In the past, they have come through with additional funding, though certainly not all of what the District asked for.  Certain items are restored to the budget and a percentage of the folks laid off are rehired.  Schools reopen in the fall and some things go back to normal… until the following March when the cycle begins all over again.  

Just because the City and the State have granted additional funding in the past, that by no means that they'll come though this year.  It is a very real possibility that schools will open in September with more students, but fewer supports, teachers, and supplies. Time will tell.  

Though my school has been spared the ax this year (we aren’t District employees and exist in a nebulous provider-area), but we have been a pawn in this political chicken in the past.  However, with the consolidation of high schools next year, our enrollment is expected to jump (not that we have any additional resources to handle such an increase).  My students are acutely aware of what’s going on in the schools because it pours out into their neighborhoods.  They talk about siblings and peers who aren’t going back in the fall because their school is closing, who see it as the end of the line.  Another barrier in a deck already stacked against them. 

While my colleagues and I do everything we can to support our students and their families, it’s exhausting fighting what feels like an uphill battle. Especially knowing that it’s in many ways a “set up” - a game of political chicken to see who can leverage whom to balk first and open their wallet. 

This is not the way to operate a school system and it’s not the way to treat the students, teachers, and families of Philadelphia.  While there may be a need for austerity and living within our means, it certainly can’t be placed solely on the backs of the students and the professionals who work tirelessly with them everyday and it can’t be done without some long-term financial planning for the health of the district as a whole (isn’t that what Thomas Kundson got paid an absurd amount of money for over a year to do?)… that is, unless the plan is to starve the district to death. 

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