SRC listens to pleas from students, but approves stripped-down budget

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

After listening to hours of impassioned testimony and not a few lectures from students and others that they were shirking their responsibility, the School Reform Commission adopted a stripped-down budget by a vote of 4-1 Thursday night that its own members called unconstitutional and inadequate.

The $2.39 billion operating budget eliminates nearly everything from schools except a principal and a minimal number of classroom teachers. Counselors, librarians, sports, secretaries, support staff, music and art? All gone.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky voted no, declaring that he was not confident that the SRC had done everything it could to avoid passing such a budget and that its passage would send a message that it was somehow doable and acceptable.

"I’m forced to consider what are components to school being a school, and this budget eviscerates … some of the things essential to schools being school," Dworetzky said. "Wherever the line falls between a school and not a school, what’s being proposed here is very close to the line."

The other commissioners voted yes, saying it was their legal obligation to pass a budget before May 31. SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos reiterated that it would be irresponsible to assume revenue that the District wasn’t guaranteed while expressing hope, if not confidence, that it would get more revenue before school opens in September.

"In no public-sector budget I was ever involved in other than the School District would a public body assume revenue that hasn’t been proposed by its funders," Ramos said. "You don’t budget according to what you wish you had."

All the commissioners except Sylvia Simms commented about the budget before voting. Dworetzky, who joined the meeting via phone, said that he thought it was reasonable to assume some additional funding would be forthcoming and some savings achieved. "I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume nothing will come of requests," he said, for more money from the city and state and labor concessions.

Commissioner Feather Houstoun said she was "hopeful" that additional funding would come through, but cautioned that the grim assumptions underlying the District’s budget could also potentially get worse. She said that the SRC had to avoid the "temptation" of approving a budget that assumes more revenue than it actually has.

"Everyone is terribly unhappy with the situation we are in," she said, "and whatever any of us feel, it is nothing compared to what people in our schools and children in our schools must feel."

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett said that he was voting yes on the budget "only because we are constitutionally mandated, not because I think it’s constitutional." He said that one of his children had been involved in the protest outside District headquarters.

"We must all work together to demand that the state and city provide adequate resources," Pritchett said. "If that does not happen, we are certainly going to need to pursue many other avenues before schools open in September."

What those avenues might be is unclear. As commissioners voted, several activists who had remained for the entire four-hour SRC meeting shouted down the commissioners with words like "shame."

The budget includes more than $670 million for charter schools and $280 million for debt service — the consequence of not just borrowing for capital expenses but interest on a $300 million loan necessary to balance the budget during the current school year. The interest on that is $22 million annually for the next 20 years.

In addition to its operating budget, the District has said it anticipates receiving roughly $430 million in grants and other funding next year, pushing its total anticipated spending to $2.8 billion. But that total figure represents about a 13 percent reduction from the current year, partly a result of sharp reductions in federal aid.

Hundreds protested outside and inside District headquarters before and during the meeting as the SRC prepared to consider the budget that Superintendent William Hite has repeatedly described as “catastrophic” and woefully inadequate to provide what students and schools need.

Photo: Amy Yeboah

Hite said that the SRC had no choice because it is committed to only spending the money that it has in hand. He stressed, though, that he fully expected the budget to be amended after the city and the state pass their budgets at the end of June.

“This is where we find ourselves when faced with the situation that many of the revenue decisions are yet to be made,” Hite said.

Still, there has been little positive movement so far on the District’s requests for $120 million from the state and $60 million from the city. Mayor Nutter has proposed a package that would bring in $95 million more for the schools – enacting a $2-per-pack cigarette tax, increasing the liquor-by-the-drink tax, and more aggressive tax collection. But most of it requires enabling legislation from Harrisburg, which has yet to gain traction in the General Assembly. And the liquor-by-the-drink proposal did not make it out of City Council committee yesterday.

The SRC is also seeking $133 million in concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and while negotiations are ongoing, the union’s contract doesn’t expire until Aug. 31.

The budget slashes school budgets to the bare basics – a principal and enough teachers to meet contractual class-size mandates, school police, custodial staff, and a smaller number of nurses. Gone are support staff, teachers for art and music, librarians, counselors, money for books and supplies, and extracurricular activities.

Hite said that, nevertheless, he remained optimistic that the budget approved Thursday would not be what sets the parameters for the next school year.

If it does, though, that would require a reduction-in-force of about 3,000 employees on top of cutbacks made to the District’s central office and school staffs over the last several years.

At the beginning of the public testimony, 4th graders at Taggart Elementary School started off a long list of speakers by begging the SRC not to eliminate their music lessons.

Photo: Harvey Finkle “Please don’t take away our instrumental music because it is important to us,” said Laura Grauer. “Now we will play for you to show you how much we care and how far we’ve come.”

They then played “Can Can,” drawing a standing ovation.

Nearly 60 speakers were on the agenda, most speaking about what they will lose — not just music, but counselors, sports, noontime aides, librarians, and books. They challenged the SRC to do better.

"People are already going above and beyond," said Daphne Weinstein, a student at Central High School. "We are already doing a lot with less."

Other students, many from Science Leadership Academy, spoke of the importance of school counselors in helping them shape their futures. A few students and teachers lectured the SRC members that they were not doing their job.

“What have we done wrong as students, teachers, and counselors to be the target of these budget cuts?" asked SLA student Nikki Adeli. "My job is to be a student, and these budgets are putting my job and my learning at risk.”

SLA counselor Karina Hirshfield called the budget “unethical” and said “it does not honor the public social contract that is public education. It is tragic that children are growing up in a society with the clear message that education is not valued,” while institutions like prisons and casinos thrive in the city.

"Greasing the pipeline to poverty … that will be the outcome of this plan," she said. "You should responsibly manage the District and make policymakers adequately fund the schools."

School nurse Eileen Duffey, her anger rising, decried the "corporate education reform movement" as destructive, "ripping this country apart." She accused the SRC and Hite, a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, of being complicit.

When her microphone was cut off, Duffey kept talking.

"We will eventually prevail against your efforts to use public money to create educational apartheid," she said, before striding out of the room to cheers from many in the crowd.

Penn Alexander and CAPA parent Terrilyn McCormick urged the SRC to oppose the budget as an act of “civil disobedience by saying no … to a budget that doesn’t give us schools,” but rather just a place where students and adults come together for several hours.

Parent and activist Helen Gym went beyond that, accusing the SRC of "frittering away" millions on charter expansion while deprioritizing its own schools.

She said that the SRC "made its point" with the doomsday budget by riling up the public. If it intends to amend the budget next month in any case, it should pass a reasonable budget now instead of triggering all the instability that will follow due to layoffs and the resultant churn of teachers, she said.

The budget, she said, is an embarrassment that "strips away the basic elements of teaching and learning" and is an "immoral act against the city of Philadelphia and its children. The vote, she said, "should be your last as a formal governing body."

In voting no, Dworetzky said that "the way charter schools are funded in Pennsylvania has been brutal" to the District.