Nearly all Philly teaching positions filled, district says

Philadelphia School District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia School District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The School District of Philadelphia announced Wednesday it has filled 99 percent of its teaching positions, a notable accomplishment given the district’s endemic vacancy woes.

The announcement follows a sustained and public push to fill every teaching position by Friday. The district will fall short of that goal, but only barely. By the end of this week, just 45 vacancies will remain, according to district superintendent William Hite. Before hiring began, 1,940 positions were open.

The district has approximately 8,100 total teaching slots — down about 300 from last year.

“We made a commitment to fully staff all schools by the start of the school year, and we plan to meet that goal,” said Hite.

In 2015, 118 positions were open when the school year began, and the shortage continued throughout the school year. When school let out just a week ago, the district had 132 unfilled teaching slots, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Long-term teacher vacancies have plagued the district for years. On Wednesday, Hite cited a 2008 Philadelphia Inquirer article stating the district had 166 teacher vacancies as the 2008-09 school year began. Over the past year, the school district ran a rolling teacher deficit and drew heavy fire from public officials.

Leader’s vision and charge

District leaders, meanwhile, pledged to fix the problem. This spring they launched an aggressive recruitment campaign that included flashy videos and scads of hiring fairs. They also pushed principals hard to fill all vacancies by the end of the school year and opened the hiring period earlier than in past years.

“Beginning of May we were off and running,” said Roxborough High School principal Dana Jenkins.

Her school had 12 vacancies, all of them now filled. The school’s hiring team interviewed 57 candidates, said Jenkins, working nights and weekends to sift through all the resumes.

“That was the vision and the charge from our leader, and so that became the vision and the charge from this leader,” Jenkins said.

She admitted her preoccupation with hiring interfered with her ability to complete other tasks, but said she’s now relieved to have the entire process behind her.

“It is very stressful to start the year out with vacancies in your building,” said Jenkins. “It really disrupts kids.”

Though Roxborough had just a few vacancies last school year, Jenkins said, it took until November to fill out her teacher roster.

District officials hope that sort of thing won’t happen again.

“This year parents will experience something different because all of their children will be in classrooms that are staffed by certified teachers,” said Hite. “We’ve very excited about that, and we think they will be as well.”

The district received nearly 1,700 applications and hired 531 new teachers, according to a Wednesday press release. More than 600 external candidates are still eligible to be hired, and the district has pledged to do “supplemental hiring” over the summer to make sure it can replace teachers who take other jobs or leave unexpectedly.

“We wanted to make sure we also had individuals who were supplemental hires that we can then quickly slot into those slots when those positions become available,” Hite said.

Other job openings

Even if it can replace all teaching positions that open over the summer, the school district may still have other jobs to fill.

Last fiscal year, the district recouped nearly $49 million in “salary savings/insurance recoveries” related to teaching positions, according to its consolidated budget. Savings related to nursing, counseling, custodial, and maintenance positions added another $16.8 million to district coffers, suggesting severe staff shortages in those areas, as well.

“In combination, that’s over $65 million that was expected to be spent on effective staffing and effectively wasn’t spent or used,” said Councilwoman Helen Gym in a council session last month. “And this means that there is [an] across-the-board problem around filling vacancies. It’s not just teacher vacancies that we are talking about.”

The district has filled all its counseling positions for next year, according to Gallard. There are still 35 nursing positions open, but the district said it expects to fill those before the school year begins. The district could not immediately provide an update on custodial or building engineer vacancies.

The district’s teacher hiring push comes amid continued labor turmoil. Philadelphia teachers have been without a contract for nearly three years. Hite said Wednesday both district officials and representatives from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers are “back at the table” and that he’s “optimistic” the sides can strike a deal.

The district recently reached new labor accords with its blue-collar and cafeteria workers. Meanwhile, the union representing Philadelphia administrators voted down a tentative agreement with the district.

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