Official: More layoffs for Philly School District

Posted: July 01, 2011

Although the Philadelphia School District has already shed more than 3,000 workers from its payroll, more pink slips are coming, an official warned Friday.

"There will be more layoffs," chief financial officer Michael Masch said after a special School Reform Commission meeting.

As of Friday, the district had lost about 3,400 jobs - 2,778 of them through a reduction in force.

Because the district was banking on charter-school reimbursement that the state this week did not provide, officials must now figure out how to close a $35 million gap - on top of the $629 million it already slashed with layoffs and deep cuts to programs and school budgets.

Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman acknowledged that difficult times were ahead.

"Yesterday, we lost over half of the people in this building," Ackerman said. "We're going to be working much harder. People are going to do the jobs of three and four."

Chairman Robert L. Archie said the SRC would meet "on or about" July 20 to receive an update from district staff on budget matters. It's expected that details of further cuts would be divulged then.

The SRC declined to cancel union contracts Friday, as it had threatened. The district is banking on $75 million in concessions from its five unions, and some of those, including the 17,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, have said they would not negotiate.

But some unions have agreed to talk.

"We are encouraged by the progress of discussions," Archie said at the meeting. "It's our desire that the school district continue with those talks."

After commissioners voted to authorize borrowing $2.9 million in short-term notes to cover district expenses temporarily, a number of speakers testified about budget cuts and fiscal priorities.

Rebecca Poyourow, the parent of a student at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary in Roxborough, blasted state legislators for the deep cutback to education funds forced on districts, especially Philadelphia.

But she also upbraided the district for its spending and urged leaders to make reductions to summer school and the expansion of Promise Academies, district-run turnaround schools that operate with extra funds.

"Or do you want to take even more out of neighborhood schools' budgets, grinding us down further in order to finance these costly and questionable programs?" Poyourow asked the SRC.

But a number of other parents and activists strongly - and angrily - defended Promise Academies, a signature initiative of Ackerman's. Some suggested that protests against schools that give extras to poor minority children was unfair and possibly racially motivated.

Vernetta Burger of the group Mothers in Charge said the district must spend the extra money to finance the schools.

"The need for Promise Academies is great," she said, "in spite of what the public may believe."

Some speakers also defended Ackerman, whose leadership style has come under fire. The superintendent recently denied rumors she was in talks to leave the district.

Ackerman said she would stand strong.

"I didn't come to fight for this job. I came to fight for these kids," she said, "and as long as I'm here, I will."

Parents and activists also testified about the impact of reductions to programs for English-language learners.

Angelica Victoriano, mother of two children at Jackson Elementary in South Philadelphia, railed against cuts to bilingual counseling assistants, workers who translate for students and families. Half of them were laid off.

"Without them, we don't have any voice," Victoriano said.

Ackerman and other district officials said they would still meet legal obligations to provide services for English-language learners. While there are cuts in many areas, the number of bilingual teachers will rise, they said.

The SRC also heard from those who were upset with a decision to close full-service kitchens at 26 schools. Students at those schools will now eat preplated meals. The move will save more than $2 million.

Seth Brown, a senior at Parkway West High School, said the preplated food was substandard.

"My classmates and I used to throw away school lunches," Brown said, blasting the "horrible condition" of the food.

Most district schools already serve the preplated meals. Wayne Grasela, the district's head of food services, said they meet all nutritional standards.

But Ackerman appeared concerned. She said she has eaten some of the preplated meals herself and was less than thrilled. She asked her staff to meet with activists on ways to improve the lunches and said she wanted to hear a report before the school year started.

"It would be great if they could help us if we move to the preplated program that includes fresh fruit and vegetables," Ackerman said.

After the meeting, Masch said that the central office cuts had gotten lost in the larger budget picture, but that "there are hundreds of little tragedies in this building. There's a human story here."

Inside "440," the district's headquarters on North Broad Street, the scene was grim.

"Some are crying, sad to lose their job, while others are angry that they were cut while others stayed," said one laid-off worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. "Some, like myself, are relieved to be cut, as things are going to be absolutely awful."

Another central-office staffer felt angry at the way the layoffs were handled and said she would miss the job - not just because of the paycheck.

"I loved working for the school district," said the second staffer, who also asked that her name be withheld. "These kids need a chance. People don't think about what happens behind the scenes, but we keep those schools running."


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com,

or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files"

at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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