Hite: Plan in works to save transportation for 7,500 students

State Sen. Vincent Hughes talks at a hearing earlier this month on the funding crisis in city schools.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes talks at a hearing earlier this month on the funding crisis in city schools. (FILE PHOTO.)
Posted: August 23, 2014

A solution to keep 7,500 public, private, and charter school students from losing their ride to school is in the works, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Thursday night.

Hite last week ordered $32 million in temporary Philadelphia School District cuts so that schools can open on time. One of those reductions would have taken away free SEPTA TransPasses for high school students who live less than two miles from school.

The School Reform Commission was set to vote on a policy that would codify that change, but Hite pulled the resolution. Cuts to school police, cleaning budgets, and other services are still planned, with more possible if legislators do not pass a $2-a-pack cigarette tax by October.

But the transportation cuts had raised alarm from many - Hite included - that truancy would rise if the district made it tougher for teenagers to get to school. As a result of ongoing talks, SRC Chairman Bill Green said, there was reason for optimism.

"We hope to work out with a partner that they will receive those," Green said of students' TransPasses.

Hite later said the district was having conversations with officials from SEPTA, the city, and elsewhere to find a way to pay for the 7,500 students' rides. He said he could have an announcement as early as next week.

The superintendent said that the transportation cut was a real concern, but that "I'm concerned about everything I announced last week. Everything I announced last week is an additional burden."

Earlier, State Sen. Vincent Hughes issued a sobering reminder that even if the cigarette-tax money comes through quickly, it would still get the district only to last year's funding levels, which did not allow for adequate supplies or full-time counselors or nurses in every school. Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat, released a report on conditions inside district buildings during the last school year.

Among the problems Hughes documented: "a major magnet school" where the entire sophomore class could not take gym because there simply were not enough teachers; an elementary school with no "crossing guards for dangerous intersections"; infrequent trash pickup at one school; and a first-year special-education teacher with no aide or support staff to help.

"Is this really school?" Hughes asked. He said he was not certain the cigarette tax would pass before the November election, and called out the legislature's behavior as "despicable" and "deplorable."

Hughes and Amy Laura Cahn, an official with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, urged parents to file complaints with the state Education Department if they saw problems inside city schools. More than 800 complaints were filed last school year, with little response from Harrisburg.

Cahn said that her organization would file litigation against the state.

At Hughes' news conference, held Thursday afternoon at School District headquarters, others sounded the alarm about conditions inside schools.

Teacher Stephen Flemming's third-grade classroom at the J.B. Kelly School has not been painted for 10 years. He has no bulletin boards. So he painted the room himself, constructed a makeshift bulletin board, then rushed to Hughes' news conference to underscore how bleak things felt.

"We do not see it getting better," Flemming said. "This is not a quality education."

Miles Roberts, a rising ninth grader at Carver High School of Engineering and Science, said that "kids don't feel safe at school."

His mother, Robin Roberts, said she was deeply worried about the education her three children were receiving. She cited a recent announcement aimed at getting all city children reading on grade level by fourth grade.

"I have no idea when we're going to get fourth graders reading on grade level when you have 40 kids in a class," Robin Roberts said.

Miles Roberts was lucky - he got into a good high school. Not all students were so fortunate, she noted.

"The school district has decided that counseling services are expendable," Robin Roberts said, frustration evident in her voice.


kgraham@phillynews.com215-854-5146 @newskag www.inquirer.com/

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