The massive Philadelphia public school district came within a few days of not starting classes on time next month, a grim prospect for 136,000 students that was narrowly avoided on Thursday with a last-minute infusion of $50 million the city borrowed to buoy the beleaguered district.
The money, only a slice of the $180 million the school district says it needs to safely operate its schools this school year, will allow administrators to pay for critical staffing needs including assistant principals and counselors. It will also allow some schools to avoid having to combine different grades in single classrooms and continue extra-curricular activities.
Superintendent William Hite Jr. had given the city a Friday deadline to come up with at least $50 million, the absolute minimum he said would provide for the most basic needs, or the district wouldn’t have been able to open school doors on Sept. 9.
“I am thankful that all of our elected officials collectively sought to resolve this issue with a high level of urgency,” Hite wrote in a statement. “As I stated last week, the $50 million will enable us to provide many crucial school functions and restore critical staff positions… In short, this will get us closer to keeping the elements that make our schools quality educational facilities.”
Just two months ago, facing a budgetary shortfall of $304 million, the district closed 24 schools and laid-off about 3,800 workers. That total included 646 teachers, 127 assistant principals and more than 1,200 aides. The funding will allow the district to rehire about 1,000 of the laid-off employees.
“The takeaway is that $50 million ensure that we have enough money to open schools, but not enough to educate kids,” said Helen Gym, a mother of three children in Philadelphia public schools.”
Mayor Michael Nutter announced that the city would sell general-obligation bonds to come up with the $50 million.
"Today, as mayor of this great city, I’m here to say I will not risk a catastrophe. We will avoid this disaster," Nutter said in a press release after Thursday’s announcement. "We are taking these actions because Philadelphia children and their parents and their hopes for a brighter future are not going to be shattered by indecision, fear or doubt."
Philadelphia parents and student advocates say there’s been a continued attack on public education in the city and across the state, spearheaded by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
Of the $180 million the school district requested, $120 million of it was to come from the state. But just $45 million of that has been approved. Corbett said he will not release that funding until certain criteria is met, including reforms under accusations of mismanagement by the city and school district. State Democrats say the reforms are being made and have demanded the release of the money. And the tension between Harrisburg and Philadelphia leaders has grown increasingly taut.
Meanwhile, even with Thursday's infusion of cash, Philadelphia public schools are languishing under the recent cuts.
Parents and advocates say schools with libraries don’t have librarians so the doors remain locked. In some schools, school nurses, desperately needed in poorer neighborhoods where there’s limited access to quality health care, only come in once a week. Some school administrators have sent out emergency notes to parents asking for donations to pay for salaries of some school staff. In one case, Gym said, a friend and parent received a note from her child’s school asking for $613 per student to raise enough money to hire an assistant principal.
“For us to allow this attack on public education in Philadelphia, I think it’s suicidal,” said Gym, the founder of Parents United, a public school student advocacy group. Gym said a middle school one of her children had attended has had its funding slashed so deeply, that when it recently had $35,000 restored to its budget, it had to make painful decisions on which of a number of critical positions it should fill or leave vacant: assistant principal, guidance counselor or teacher’s aides, among them. “The conversation I’ve heard in the last 24 hours is just people saying, I cannot do it anymore, I’m leaving the city,” Gym said.
Ogbonna Hagins, a former school teacher and father of twin boys who attend a public high school in the city, said the school district’s current dire state was years in the making. He blamed politicians, including Mayor Nutter, for caring more about their public image and politics than the children of Philadelphia.
“What’s at stake is civilization as we know it, because the crime situation is based on the education system, and that’s hurting job opportunities,” Hagins said.
The latest rounds of cuts and funding woes are compounded by the impact school closures and draconian cost-saving measures have had on poor and minority students. Of the 24 schools closed by the district, 81% of the affected students are black, while they make up only 58% of the school district, according to the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, an advocacy group. About 93% of those students are low income.
Nationwide, school closures and budget cuts in major cities including Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit have affected tens of thousands of minority students.