Ackerman talks budget (and chainsaws) at Leeds Middle School

Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman called on parents for help March 31 with the massive education cuts proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett for next year, but she said there is one program she will try to keep safe – the district’s 31 turnaround schools.

“Those are our schools that are our lowest-performing, and have been low-performing for sometimes decades, and so we’ve made that a priority,” she said.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission adopted a budget Wednesday that cuts $629 million in district spending in response to Corbett’s $1.1 billion in proposed cuts to K-12 education.

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook reported those cuts would include a reduction by half in central office spending, reduced school budgets by about $1 million each, reduced school nursing staff, fewer special education liaisons, and a move to half-day kindergarten for many schools, among other cuts.

And deeper cuts still

Thursday night Ackerman spoke to about 400 parents and students at Leeds Middle School in the East Mt. Airy/Cedarbrook neighborhood to further outline the impacts.

She held fast to maintaining a longer school day and more instructional days in the school year for the turnaround schools, but even this may not be totally immune.

“There is a doomsday list,” she said. “They’re on that doomsday list.”

A program that will almost certainly see cuts next school year is the district’s network of privately run alternative schools, according to Ackerman.

“Alternative schools are definitely on the list [of cuts],” she said. “We will cut the alternative school budget in half. Most of those we contract with private providers, and so what we’re going to have to do is find some way to provide those kinds of services inside the district.”

Ackerman did not say how those services, which include disciplinary schools, would be taken up by the district but she said plans to do this are already underway.

Cuts to the already patchy school busing service are also a definite, Ackerman said.

Inyka Wilson, who traveled to Leeds from the Northeast, said she does not have a way to get her son to the magnet middle school he hopes to attend as a sixth grader next year. The school already does not offer buses for sixth graders. Ackerman said for many families that problem will get worse.

“There will be, probably, no transportation for any child that lives less than two miles from school,” she said.

Parental worries

Parents stood in two lines at the Leeds auditorium, some waiting for hours to talk to the superintendent. A common concern was the loss of some special education services.

Cecelin Thompson worried these cuts would affect her autistic child. Ackerman said there would be losses to special education services, but she classified those cuts as “extras,” not the kinds of cuts that would violate a school’s ability to comply with a child’s individual education plan. “That’s not going to happen,” she said.

From a recent series of community meetings, the district identified five things school parents placed as their top priorities: robust school safety operations, Gifted and Talented programs, music enrichment, decreased class sizes, and athletic programs. Ackerman said if the proposed cuts come through even these priorities wouldn’t be safe.

Many parents were angry over the cuts and what they would mean for their children.

When Lisa Bennet got to the podium she directed her anger at Ackerman, admonishing her for appearing on the cover of the Daily News Wednesday with a chainsaw, highlighting an article about the budget. Bennet called it irresponsible for her to cast the issue in such a provocative light.

Ackerman explained the chainsaw was added to the picture by the newspaper. “You should sue,” Bennet said.

Avoiding doomsday

But the superintendent and other public officials were not above stirring the crowd in their own ways. Rep. Ronald Waters (D. – Mont. and Phila.) said Corbett’s proposed budget boosts spending to prisons while hacking away at schools. He called prisons “where young people go when they fail in schools.”

“Why do they need to build more prisons?” he asked. “They got plans for our children. We’re going to boycott those prisons. We’re going to send our children to Penn State, not state pen. Were going to send our children to Yale, not jail.”

As school districts across the state consider massive layoffs due to Corbett’s proposed budget Ackerman told parents there was still time to change things. Even though Republicans promised an early budget this year, she tried to spur interest in joining the school district for two protests this month in Harrisburg. (April 5 and 26)

“Right now they’re not hearing from Philly in a way that they understand. This is going to decimate our school system,” she said. “The governor is still a politician, he’s going to listen to you. … Be on the bus. We’re going.”

 

This story is the product of a news gathering partnership between NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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