SRC lashed over proposed cost-cutting budget

Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Public Schools speaks at the meeting. New Chairman Bill Green was apologetic.
Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Public Schools speaks at the meeting. New Chairman Bill Green was apologetic. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 02, 2014

Parents and community members, anguished by a proposed Philadelphia School District budget that could mean 1,000 layoffs and class sizes swelling to 41, lashed out Wednesday night at the School Reform Commission, describing the situation inside schools as "dangerous," "insanity," even "institutionalized child abuse."

Chairman Bill Green, at whom much of the anger was directed, did not disagree.

"Make no mistake," he said in response to more than two hours of outrage from the public. "What we are doing in schools is immoral. It is wrong."

Officials laid out the grim realities of the 2014-15 budget: The district needs $216 million in new money just to keep the level of services it has this year, leaving many schools without full-time counselors, nurses, or adequate supplies.

Without that money, the district would have to lay off 1,000 more workers, mostly teachers. Class sizes would balloon to up to 41. There would be less money for transportation, special and alternative education, and facilities - a real risk in a district with a stock of aging buildings.

To begin to make modest investments in things such as extracurricular activities, early literacy programs, and increased responses to students' emotional and behavioral needs, the district is asking the city, the state, and its unions for an eye-popping $440 million.

"For parents, students and myself, it is unbelievably frustrating to find ourselves in the same position that we found ourselves in one year ago," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said. "The School District of Philadelphia cannot cut its way to solvency or a system of great schools."

Though state funding was universally acknowledged to be a main driver of the budget crisis, many of those in attendance also laid blame at the feet of district officials and the SRC.

Plenty of neighborhood schools have done well, parent Christine Brisson said.

"By your budget crisis, you are tearing them down and undermining them," Brisson said, adding that even the district's strongest schools are suffering.

"If Masterman and Central go down, it's on your hands," she said.

Two district principals said they feared what would happen if the district opened schools in September with the same staffing levels that are in place now, or worse.

Karen Thomas, principal of Cook-Wissahickon Elementary in Roxborough, noted that her job is essentially "putting out fires and keeping students safe."

"This year's school budget is not just a disgrace, it's dangerous," said Jessica Brown, principal of the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush. Most school leaders feel perilously close to something terrible happening - not just physical danger, but deep disadvantages for students who cannot afford them.

"I am very concerned that we are going to try to open schools next September in the same manner as this year," Brown said.

Community members decried the district's spending choices.

They are angry, they said, that the district recently hired a director of recruitment at a $90,000 annual salary. They are angry that it is opening three new high schools in the fall. They are angry that it could turn two district schools over to charters, at a per-student cost of $3,000 to $4,000 above what it spends now.

Some speakers called for the district to give schools adequate resources - including one counselor and one nurse for every school - and then simply let the money run out.

Eileen DiFranco, a school nurse, said she believed the SRC's public meetings were just "window dressing," that minds had been made up long ago.

"The plan all along was to destroy our public schools," she said.

Janet Pinkerton said it was easier to sell the glitz of transformation than the hard, important work of stabilization.

"How can we let 200,000 kids, including mine, get caught in this hideous parlor game?" said Pinkerton, parent of a child at Masterman.

Alison McDowell, another Masterman parent, said the district was perpetuating "institutionalized child abuse" and called for acts of civil disobedience.

After 28 speakers gave the SRC a dressing down, Green said that when he and Commissioner Farah Jimenez joined the SRC in February, they thought the district had hit bottom, that going forward they would be able to oversee innovation and stabilization.

"We are upset, we are outraged, we are disgraced that we're talking about cutting again," Green said.

He said the SRC values teachers and was not attempting to attack them. He knows asking teachers to take big salary cuts - the SRC is demanding major financial concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers - is "disgraceful."

"We are in a desperate situation of asking people who can't pay for it to do more," he said.

The SRC will continue to call on the city and state to do more, Green said. He said it was doing the best it could.

In the audience, a man stood. "Well, you're not doing enough," he shouted angrily.

The cry to dissolve the SRC was sounded by several speakers, and as the commission met, all four Democratic gubernatorial candidates said at a debate that they favored abolishing the panel.


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

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