Hite: Schools will open on time without major layoffs

Posted: August 17, 2014

PHILADELPHIA PUBLIC schools will open on time and avoid massive layoffs, but reduce key services to help address an $81 million deficit, officials announced yesterday.

Superintendent William Hite said the district is banking on assurances from state officials that a Philadelphia cigarette tax will be approved, which could generate $49 million for the district this school year, as well as concessions from the teachers union that would net major savings.

Without those two measures in place by Oct. 1, the next step would likely be significant layoffs, which would increase class sizes and require combined grade-level classes, Hite said.

"Today we are not announcing that there is a mass number of layoffs," he said at a news conference. "We are unfortunately having to do cuts that we hope are temporary, but we're not completely out of the woods yet on this. It all depends on the cigarette tax. It also depends on labor."

Hite said the decision to open schools on time eliminates uncertainty for families and reduces the likelihood of charter-school flight, which would have exacerbated the funding crisis.

The cuts, he said, will save an estimated $32 million, and have the least impact on students. They include eliminating TransPasses for high school students living within two miles of their schools, up from the current 1.5 miles, affecting 7,500 students. School police vacancies will go unfilled.

Additionally, the district will scale back alternative-education programs, which will affect 300 students; teachers at Promise Academies will no longer receive preparation and professional development before the start of the year; and building maintenance and repairs will be reduced.

Hite and School Reform Commission chairman Bill Green emphasized the need for stable, recurring funding from the state and concessions from the teachers union.

Hite said the district is no longer asking the union for a salary decrease, but wants contributions to health care in line with blue-collar workers and administrators.

Green added that if the two sides cannot agree, the SRC may invoke its special powers under state law. "That is not a threat, just a statement of fact."

In response, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said the union offered to contribute to benefits and forego a wage hike for one year, but the district rejected it.

The problem, he said, is that the district is proposing furloughs, which amount to a wage reduction, and work-rule changes regarding class sizes and the number of counselors at a school. Jordan noted the out-of-pocket money teachers routinely spend on basic supplies.

"We have always, always stepped up to deal with problems that the district may have, and this is not the first time and I would doubt that it would be the last time," he said.

The reaction from parents and students was mixed.

"I feel like it's a good thing they're opening on time, but then it's a bad thing because we're not getting enough funding and we need more resources," said Annisa Washington, a rising sophomore at Constitution High School and member of Youth United for Change. "Our books are falling apart. Our classes [are] overcrowded. And people in our school are not getting the right transportation they need to get [to] and from school."

Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, said she supports opening schools on time, but "not" to appease the state.

"I think that's what the big concern here is, " she said, "that we are merely appeasing and getting by, instead of what I think is the more important issue, which is to educate children."

On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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