Philadelphia: Pressure Builds as New School Budget Cuts Loom

Philadelphia: Pressure Builds as New School Budget Cuts Loom

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By Wilford Shamlin III for the Philadelphia Tribune

With a second round of layoffs looming for Philadelphia public schools, parents, students and other supporters will intensify pressure on City Council and state lawmakers to help close a $304 million budget shortfall.

Those funding cuts are drastic, potentially leaving the state’s largest school district with bare-bones staff at the start of the next school year in September. Under what some have dubbed a “doomsday budget,” many programs and services that traditionally define school would be history.

William Hite Jr., superintendent of schools, said the district’s financial situation is made more dire in part because federal grants to the district decreased by $134 million from a year ago.

The Philadelphia School District plans to send layoff notices to an undisclosed number of central office employees later this week, but there’s no word yet on the exact date, said Fernando Gallard, spokesman for the district.

This is set to take place just days after the district announced intentions to lay off 3,783 school-based positions. Noontime aides, student safety assistants and teachers were among those with the largest number of proposed layoffs. Nine categories had 100 or more positions eliminated, from highest to lowest: noontime aides (1,202), student safety assistants (769), teachers (676), secretaries (307), counselors (283), assistant principals (127), early childhood teachers’ assistants (89), school operations officers (53), and school improvement support liaisons (45). Those layoffs take effect on June 30. The district is also maintaining a hiring freeze and leaving positions vacant.

Noontime aides and student safety assistants, who work part-time, are available to students when other staff members are taking care of other business. Top school administrators say their presence contributes to a positive, safe school environment.

According to the Pennsylvania State Education Association, reductions in state aid for the last three years are profoundly impacting school districts statewide, and students in the most financially distressed districts are feeling the brunt of those cutbacks in programs and services.

Of districts in Pennsylvania, 75 percent plan to reduce instructional programming in the 2013-14 school year, according to survey results released last week by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

The survey also found nearly half the districts expect class sizes to increase, and nearly 40 percent expect to offer fewer elective course offerings in the next school year. School districts also report plans to scale back tutoring and remedial programs, and delay purchases of new textbooks.

The state Department of Education estimates funding cuts to instructional programs at $274 million in Pennsylvania schools since 2010-11.

In Philadelphia, athletics, music and arts groups, after-school programs and extracurricular activities are all targeted for elimination.

In urging City Council to send additional funds to city schools, Carolyn Adams, outgoing board president of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, underscored the importance of athletic programs and extracurricular activities, saying they help keep students engaged and feel a stronger connection to their schools, motivating them to avoid absenteeism and dropping out before earning their diplomas.

She also fears that budget cuts could cause instability within the district in other ways. For example, teachers may take jobs in neighboring school districts with less drastic budget cuts. And, Adams said families, too, may relocate to other school districts that are perceived to offer better educational opportunities.

On Wednesday, a parents’ group will join Public Citizens members at a City Council meeting. Armed with 4,000 letters written by students about the impact of budget cuts, parents will urge a Council committee to support the liquor-by-the-drink tax for additional revenue. The advocacy group for children will also unite with parents and other community allies before the Council takes action on the Use and Occupancy Tax. Those two levies would generate millions of dollars in new revenue for city schools.

Meanwhile, Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, is urging community members to join a June 25 rally at the Statehouse in Harrisburg to push for adequate funding for public schools.

 

Contact staff writer Wilford Shamlin III at (215) 893-5742 or wshamlin@phillytrib.com.

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