Philly educators cautious, optimistic as new year begins

Philadelphia School District students will arrive for the first day of classes Tuesday morning.

Educators are cautiously optimistic about the new year, but worries remain as classrooms citywide continue to feel the effects of budget constraints in recent years.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has forwarded a budget plan that would drastically increase school resources statewide, but he and the Republicans who control the legislature have yet to finalize a deal.

“I’m extremely anxious about the fact we still don’t have a state budget,” said Marge Neff, chair of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. “And we’re going to start yet another year without adequate resources in schools.”

Teachers echoed that sentiment.

“The thing that maybe is most scary is people are getting used to this — this deep, deep austerity, this deeply cruel system,” said Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences teacher Amy Roat. “I guess, for your sanity, you have to keep going, but it’s still an unacceptable situation.”

Charlie McGeehan teaches in North Philly at the U School, which strives to develop individualized curriculum for each student.

“How do we create a school that’s designed for students when we have so many students and so few staff members to do the work that we need to do?” McGeehan asked.

In order to start the year without a state budget in place, the Philadelphia School District had to borrow $275 million dollars to meet payroll. The loan will demand an additional interest payment of about $1 million.

The district will also delay payments to its larger vendors. These actions will only get Philly public schools through the first two months of classes.

The district still needs an additional $18 million in order maintain last year’s “inadequate” status quo. Officials assume, though, that the state will ultimately provide at least that much, so no further cuts are planned.

As state budget negotiations continue, Philly teachers are also anxious about another big decision that will happen in Harrisburg.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will decide if the SRC has the power to unilaterally void the teachers contract. It attempted to do so in October 2014 to save money by imposing health care concessions on teachers, but the lower courts have sided with teachers.  Teachers have been working under terms of a contract that expired the summer of 2013.  In 2014, the SRC was trying to cut its health insurance costs by changing those terms even while both sides could not agree on a new deal.

“Waiting for the Supreme Court to make a decision has everyone on pins and needles,” said South Philadelphia High School english teacher Barbara Keating. “If the Supreme Court doesn’t weigh in our favor, it can be open season on teachers in the district.”

Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) are entering their third school year without a contract.

“We’d like to see PFT members, teachers be able to get a contract that pays them more, but we really have to be aware of our fiscal realities, and live within our budget,” said SRC Chair Neff, a former PFT member.

Whatever happens, Keating says she won’t allow her frustrations to affect her kids.

“This is not a student issue. This is a grown up issue,” said Keating. “And it’s beholden upon us to not let that carry over into our classroom.”

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