Phila. school staff paint a doomsday budget picture

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. (center) said: "A building with teachers and principals, but no other supports? That's not a picture of a school to me"
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. (center) said: "A building with teachers and principals, but no other supports? That's not a picture of a school to me" (TOM GRALISH / File Photograph)
Posted: May 07, 2013

If the doomsday budget being floated by the nearly broke Philadelphia School District comes to pass, this is what school will look like in September:

"No books, no paper, no clubs, no counselors, no librarian," Masterman teacher Elizabeth Taylor grimly told City Council last week. There would be bigger classes, but no aides to help manage them. Schools would lack sports, support staff to monitor lunchrooms and playgrounds, and secretaries. Some would lose security officers.

Thousands of musical instruments would sit unplayed because there would be no music teachers to give lessons. Nurses, already scaled back dramatically, would be reduced to the point where one would become responsible for 1,000 students, many of whom require medication daily or are seriously ill.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has no illusions about what he is proposing if a $300 million-plus deficit is not filled by sizable contributions from the city, state, and district labor unions.

"A building with teachers and principals, but no other supports? That's not a picture of a school to me," Hite said.

Is an element of brinkmanship involved in painting the most dire picture possible? Certainly. But most district watchers agree - this budget, or some marginally less awful version, could very easily come to pass.

District officials and the School Reform Commission have asked the state for $120 million in extra funding, and city leaders for $60 million. Legislators in Harrisburg have not been optimistic, and, though Mayor Nutter has strongly supported the district's request, City Council has been lukewarm. Council members have generally signaled an unwillingness to raise property taxes again, though they left the door open on other ways of raising revenue, such as increasing the liquor-by-the-drink tax.

Principals and school staff, now grappling with making the stark numbers work, are incredulous.

"This budget wouldn't staff a McDonald's," said James Otto, longtime leader of Sheppard Elementary in West Kensington.

Anthony Majewski, principal of Hill-Freeman Middle School in East Germantown, wonders why there isn't more outrage. But he has a plan, and a backup plan.

Plan A: "Pray that the stars align sooner rather than later," Majewski said.

Plan B: "Set up my desk in the hallway to let people in and out of the building," he said. "Forget observations; I won't be able to do those."

At a School Reform Commission budget hearing last week, many testified about what would be one of the most difficult cuts - school counselors. (One counselor per building is mandated per the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract, but district officials say they can't afford to meet that requirement and will have to deal with any consequences.)

Consider a typical recent day for West Philadelphia High counselor Katie MacConnell.

First, she worked out logistics so students could attend a program to prepare them for college. Then she met with two students and their parents to discuss an alarming numbers of absences and class cuts. She chatted with a Department of Human Services worker about a student's progress, then met with another teenager's probation officer.

Everything stopped at 10:30, when a suicidal young woman came to MacConnell's office. MacConnell helped her figure things out, coming up with short- and long-term strategies and waiting for the young lady's mother to arrive. The day marched on - meetings about improving the senior project, helping a student figure out how to afford college, assisting a struggling family with a request for uniform assistance, and on, and on.

Make no mistake, MacConnell and others say: Counselors are not a luxury.

"Counselors work to remove all the barriers to a student's education," MacConnell, a four-year veteran, told the SRC. "In Philadelphia, there are many."

Sean Plunkett, a seventh grader at Shawmont Elementary in Roxborough, worries about the loss of his counselor. He has a long list of things he worries about losing - the mentally gifted program he's in, the music program he loves, the school show, the basketball team, the safety patrol.

"It would be crazy," he said. "It would be upsetting. This is an emergency; a lot of the kids are worried that this might happen."

So is Tassie Rivera.

Rivera has high hopes for her son Ismael, a bright third grader at Julia deBurgos Elementary in Fairhill. So when she heard what was on the chopping block for next year - counselor, art teacher, school police, secretary, vice principal - "my heart dropped."

DeBurgos, already at 650 students, is set to absorb 200 more when Fairhill Elementary closes in June.

"There's no way the teachers are going to be able to handle everything, and the principal will have to be counselor, secretary, security," Rivera said. "What will happen when a kid is being beat up in the cafeteria? It will be an unsecure school. It's unacceptable."

Ismael and his classmates already miss out on music class. Dropping art would mean "no fun at all," Rivera said.

She and other deBurgos parents plan to fight for more funding, to hope they can hold the line on the things their school has. But if that fails, Rivera feels she has no choice.

"I will homeschool him," Rivera said. "I just don't see my son succeeding here."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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