Monday, October 18, 2021

A doomsday budget is approved for Philadelphia schools

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Regretfully, we report that the School Reform Commission, which runs the public schools in Philadelphia, adopted on Thursday a stripped-down budget by a vote of 4-1. Some of the commission’s own members called the budget unconstitutional and inadequate, according to a report on The Notebook blog.


Students from Philadelphia testify before the US Department of Education in January.

The $2.39-billion budget will undercut the quality of education for the city’s schoolchildren, but Superintendent William Hite said he hopes to restore many programs to the schools once the state’s and city’s budgets are approved later this month.

The current budget, which Mr Hite says spends only the money on which the district knows it can rely, slashes school services to the bones: a principal and enough teachers to meet contractual class-size mandates, school police, custodial staff, and a few nurses.

Support staff are gone. Music and art teachers are gone. Librarians are gone. There will be no counselors unless more funding comes in, and no money for books, supplies, or any extracurricular activities at all.

Mayor Michael Anthony Nutter of Philadelphia has proposed a new “sin” tax on cigarettes and liquor, which could, if passed, provide an additional $95 million for the schools. The district is also hoping to obtain about $133 million in concessions from teachers, but negotiations with their union aren’t expected to conclude until August. Those won’t add up to the $304 million deficit projected for the schools if they held everything at the same levels as students experienced this year, but it’s a start.

The mayor also proposed attaching bank accounts of people who are delinquent on paying taxes. Although nobody disputes the need to collect on the taxes owed to the city, several lawmakers have declared this part of the mayor’s proposal dead on arrival because times in the city are tough right now, especially in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

A host of testimony—a k a lecturing—was presented to the SRC before the vote, according to The Notebook’s report, including one musical presentation by fourth graders from Taggart Elementary School. Before playing “Can Can” to a standing ovation, one of the children begged the commission, “Please don’t take away our instrumental music because it is important to us. Now we will play for you to show you how much we care and how far we’ve come.”

We would be remiss not to mention the major expenditures in the approved budget: $670 million for charter schools and $280 million for debt service. About $22 million of that $280 million is the interest on the $300 million loan the district had to take out to cover the deficit in the 2012-2013 school year.

Editorial

I realize most of our readers don’t have much of a stake in what happens in the public schools of Philadelphia. Most of our readers aren’t even invested in public schools in their own towns. But I’m not writing this for those people; I’m writing it for the students of Philadelphia.

To those older than 11, why aren’t you trying harder to solve this problem? From news reports, you have to come up with $300 million for next year. You can’t do that with a bake sale. As an outsider, I think begging the SRC for a music teacher at your elementary school is like begging a bum for a buck. He doesn’t have it, and all you’re going to do is get him frustrated with you over his own ruined life.

I’ve read about a few philanthropists who are willing to help in any way their corporate setup allows, but this is not the long-term solution we need. As the first huge district where such cuts are close to becoming a reality, Philly is setting an example for the rest of us. And all they can do is beg. The SRC is not the enemy here; we might try forming connections and partnerships in order to provide an education for Philadelphia students that includes more than a stripped-down education in reading and math.

For example, we published a letter from members of the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, begging the SRC not to delete music programs from schools. Instead of writing letters, could somebody just do it? What would work if music programs can’t be funded? Although I fully support music programs in schools, I also accept the fact that counselors and nurses are a higher priority when it comes to funds from the district. So, let’s start thinking about contingencies.

What about a twist on artist-in-residence programs? Often teaching music is a good way to develop one’s own music skills, and Philadelphia has one of the country’s best music conservatories. Could an idea be sold to talented musicians that teaching music in the public schools could be beneficial to their own musical careers? They could be hired at lower salaries than certified teachers would require, and I don’t think this is a long-term solution, but could such an idea be massaged, with the help of those same Philadelphia Orchestra members who don’t want music programs deleted, so that it keeps music in the school day for Philly’s fourth graders?

Maybe, maybe not. But we should try to come up with contingency plans in case the district can’t find the $304 million it needs.

Paul Katulahttps://news.schoolsdo.org
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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