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Philadelphia school officials plead their case for more funds before council

School District of Philadelphia

School District of Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on The Notebook.

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School district officials, the teachers union president and advocates implored City Council on Wednesday to do all it can to make sure that Philadelphia schoolchildren don’t suffer from severe cuts to educational programs, especially in this time of crisis.

At the annual district budget hearing, councilmembers were receptive and praised the district for its response to the pandemic and its work in pivoting to online learning. But they were largely noncommittal about supporting a property tax hike proposed by Mayor Kenney that would raise more money for the district.

Several topics dominated the discussion, including the need to improve internet access across the city.

In response to a question from Councilmember Helen Gym, Superintendent William Hite said that Comcast and other internet service providers had been asked, but declined to open residential hotspots to general use. A Comcast spokeswoman said in response that these are not designed for broad public use.

Councilmembers also questioned Hite, Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson, and Acting Facilities and Operations Chief Jim Creedon about ongoing work to make schools safe from lead and asbestos hazards. They praised the district for taking advantage of the empty school buildings to catch up on remediation work.

And they extracted a promise from Hite that all students would be given a cap and gown they can wear for a virtual graduation.

But the dominant theme was the need for sufficient funds to avoid a repeat of what happened during the last recession, when state and federal dollars to the state’s school districts were slashed by $1 billion, with Philadelphia absorbing a quarter of those cuts. This resulted in thousands of layoffs, including all counselors and nurses.

“Our response to the crisis must be reflective of who we want to be as a society,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “Quite simply, we must reject efforts to return to an austerity budget that mirrors years of cuts, from which our young people are still suffering. The long-lasting impacts — both in terms of learning regression and impacts of the trauma of this crisis — will require careful attention and resources.”

Donna Cooper, executive director of the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth, urged City Council to counteract what she termed the “shortsighted cockiness” of the White House and U.S. Senate that she said if not curbed will push the country into a devastating depression.

“I implore you not to let the incompetence in Washington visit more pain on the children of this city. Show them what leadership looks like.”

Monson pointed out that, before COVID-19, the district briefly had a budget that was “structurally balanced,” meaning that its revenues matched its expenditures. That was all thrown up in the air by the crisis, which has wreaked havoc on state and city revenues while adding expenses relating to the need to prepare for a safe reopening of school in September – whatever form that might take.

“At this time, we need your support more than ever because we are deeply concerned that the COVID crisis will lead to a financial future marked by structural deficits that are devastating to public education,” said Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson. “The District has moved from a place of financial stability to a looming financial crisis that could be more severe than even what we lived through seven years ago when the District experienced a $300 million funding cut, which led to drastic layoffs, reduced supports for schools and significant decreases in school building maintenance and more.”

Wilkerson gently urged the Council to approve what she called the “nominal” property tax increase Kenney has proposed – a 3.95% hike on the school district’s share of the tax that he said would result in a $58 higher annual payment on a home assessed at $150,000.

While emphasizing the board’s advocacy for more state and federal dollars, she said Kenney’s proposal would “provide predictable funding for our schools. Our children deserve nothing less.”

The battle in Harrisburg is to prevent the legislature from passing a budget that plugs the state’s own projected $5 billion hole by reducing state aid to school districts. Philadelphia and other districts are asking that federal stimulus dollars be passed through to them in addition to maintaining levels of state basic education and special education dollars.

Districts are also seeking a change in the way charter schools are reimbursed, especially for their special education students, a proposal put forward by Gov. Wolf and originally included in the district’s budget before COVID-19. That budget projected that the district would structurally balance its budget through 2025, primarily by saving more than $100 million a year in charter costs.

Charter schools educate just over a third of the city’s public school students and now get about a third of the money, but their costs have been rising by 4% a year compared to 1% for the district. Of the $700 million in additional funds the district has received since 2015, most from the city, half has gone to charter spending, Monson said.

But charter funding reform is now almost certainly off the table. While Monson’s new budget projection continues to show a modest fund balance of $16 million in fiscal 2021, he said the shortfall will balloon to $800 million in 2025.

Monson ran through numbers showing that today the state and the city contribute roughly the same amount to the district’s $3.2 billion budget, a ratio that has tipped since the last recession, when the state provided a much higher percentage of the district’s funds.

Councilmembers are clearly reluctant to further tap city taxpayers. At least two, Allan Domb and David Oh, clearly said they were opposed, and President Darrell Clarke also expressed skepticism.

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Seeking to close the digital divide

Councilmembers returned to the theme of internet access and urged the district to step up negotiations with the service providers. The district has not been able to provide a number of families estimated to lack internet access, but last week released figures showing that only 57% of students were participating in online learning, and less than half of those in the elementary grades.

Comcast spokeswomen Jennifer Bilotta pointed out that Comcast has offered Internet Essentials free of charge for two months to new users, increased the speed, and removed most barriers to families based on past delinquencies and nonpayments. It also opened outdoor Xfinity hotspots to anyone, not just Xfinity customers. And she reiterated that the family of CEO Brian Roberts donated $5 million toward purchase of the Chromebooks.

She explained that the residential hotspots, which she described as residential access points, are not engineered to support a high volume of users.

Still, councilmembers – and school officials – seem to want to ask more of Comcast, which is located here, and the other providers, including Verizon and AT&T.

“If you’re not providing internet access, it becomes futile to provide Chromebooks,” said Councilmember Cindy Bass. “You might as well give students pencil and paper. One goes hand in hand with the other.”

Advocates also said that it was time to look at the service in a more holistic fashion.

“We are calling on the School District to actually assess the needs of students and work with Comcast to better meet their needs through Internet Essentials, and more importantly, by opening up residential hotspots,” said Devren Washington of the Movement Alliance Project, formerly the Media Mobilizing Project.

Councilmembers, several of whom are parents of district students, were also concerned about graduation, and pleased that Hite agreed to arrange for students to have caps and gowns.

Doha Ibrahim, a graduating senior at Lincoln High School and a student representative on the Board of Education this year, said that the best way for Council to honor the class of 2020 is to do its part to make sure the schools are properly funded.

She noted that her class started school at the beginning of the last recession.

“At this critical moment, we are asking you to honor the class of 2020 by safeguarding the education of all future classes by showing that education funding is too important to cut. Don’t send our schools backward. Please do what it takes to fund education at its current level.”

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