With new tax money Philly schools to add teachers, brace for budget cuts

 Philadelphia School District headquarters (NewsWorks file photo)

Philadelphia School District headquarters (NewsWorks file photo)

Thanks to an unexpected $65 million injection of tax revenue from the city, the School District of Philadelphia plans to hire more teachers and squirrel money away to protect against possible federal budget cuts.

In a budget presentation Thursday night, district Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson proposed hiring 113 new teachers, which would allow the district to reduce its reliance on unpopular and disruptive staffing practices.

Specifically, those additional hires would eliminate the need to combine any first and second grade classes — an austerity measure known as “split classrooms.” The district also plans to eliminate so-called “leveling” for grades K through 3. During the annual leveling process, the district moves teachers at schools with lower-than-expected enrollment to over-enrolled schools.

Under the new proposal, all K-3 teachers would remain at their original schools and teachers would be added to schools in need of overflow relief.

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About $17.5 million will also be put aside to counteract a feared cut to federal Title II funds, money that has historically gone toward early literacy programs and professional development for educators. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the Title II program altogether, although Congress has yet to act on his suggestions.

That rainy day fund is made possible by Philadelphia’s Actual Value Initiative (AVI), enacted in 2014 to bring assessed values of properties more in line with their real value. But this is the first year that the city has reassessed all commercial properties. The process has yielded an extra $65 million for the district which, like most, relies significantly on local property taxes.

Speakers at the budget presentation urged district officials to sink some or all of the new revenue into a teacher’s contract. It’s been nearly four years since the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the district had a valid labor pact.

“The greatest education investment a school District can make is recruiting and retaining exceptionally-qualified, dedicated, highly decorated, teachers,” said Nicole Jackson, a teacher at Bayard Taylor Elementary School.

Multiple district officials suggested after the meeting that the infusion of new money from city real estate has accelerated the pace and intensity of labor talks, hinting at signs of life in a negotiation that has dragged on for years with little indication of progress.

“We have never left the table. We’ve always been there. I do think having additional revenue helps the discussion along,” said Monson.

He did not, however, divulge any new proposal details or say a deal is imminent.

Superintendent William Hite also acknowledged a “renewed energy” around labor talks.

“We’re talking all the time and we remain optimistic,” added district spokesperson Kevin Geary.

The district’s current projections include $192 million over the next five years for both a new teacher’s union contract and a new contract for the union that represents school-level administrators.

Before the $65 million boost was factored in, district officials estimated the city’s public schools system would be $138 million in the red by fiscal year 2019 and $905 million under water in fiscal year 2022.

The new budget presented Thursday outlined the same general trend, but with slightly less ghastly figures. Absent any more new money, the district’s shortfalls will be $55 million and $714 million in 2019 and 2022 respectively.

Last month the School Reform Commission also asked district officials to draw up a separate budget to include all investments the district feels it needs to adequately educate its roughly 134,000 students. That alternative budget is not yet ready, however, said Monson.

After Monson’s presentation on the budget, the commissioners listened to 17 speakers address the budget and its impact on different aspects in city schools.

Leading the list of speakers were students from Vietlead, a grassroots advocacy group for Vietnamese communities based in Philadelphia and New Jersey, and Asian Americans United (AAU) urging the SRC to invest in ESOL support for students.

Eileen Zang, a sophomore at Philadelphia High School for Girls and an AAU youth leader, called for bilingual counseling assistants in schools.

“Immigrant students and families are not receiving support we need to guarantee that we are able to fully participate in our own education,” said Zang. “Bilingual counselors are very important to us student and our parents. Without them non-English speakers are unable to understand or express themselves.”

As of now, there are 57 BCA’s in the District speaking 36 languages including Albanian, Vietnamese, Spanish and Chinese — both Mandarin and Cantonese.

With such a small number serving a growing immigrant and refugee population, some students are underserved at best.

Tanh Danh Luang, a Vietnamese student at Preparatory Charter HIgh School, said through a translator that since his BCA is shared between his school and South Philadelphia High, he only sees them once a week. Some students in the District don’t get to see BCAs at all, he added.

The only speaker who didn’t address the budget was was Jalyssa Ortiz, a senior from Northeast High School and a member of Youth United For Change. Her testimony was on behalf of a new water bottle policy that would allow students to bring reusable transparent or plastic water bottles to school.

She said access to water in the classroom would help students increase their “cognitive skills such as thinking, learning, and ability to focus,” especially in classrooms where there is no air conditioning.

The policy also stated that teacher could only confiscate water bottles from students if they posed a safety hazard in the classroom. If a teacher deems it necessary to confiscate a water bottle from a student, a teacher can ask the student to throw it away or confiscate it for a day, while reusable water bottles can be confiscated but must be returned within a week.

“We need this policy to ensure that teachers and staff are not allowed to criminalize water or make it harder for students to access the hydration station,” she said. “Students should be able to have water bottles in school because water is a basic human right, not a privilege.”

Also, there was confusion about how many speakers were allowed to speak on the budget and accusations that the SRC sought to limit public input. According to SRC policy, only 12 speakers are allowed to speak on a single topic, six in support, six against. But far more sought to sign up. Some were eventually allowed if they spoke on a topic in relation to, but not directly about, the budget.

“What you are doing is creating an adversarial atmosphere when you deny people the right to speak,” said Karel Kiliminik, a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. “It’s way past time for this body to recognize and support authentic public engagement, not discourage it.”

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