Philly school board adopts preliminary 2023 budget despite opposition

Principals told the board the draft budget means they will lose needed staff.

A crowd of people in front of school district headquarters in Philadelphia with a Teamsters truck in the background
School principals and others protest the 2023 preliminary education budget outside school district headquarters in Philadelphia on March 24, 2022. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

The Philadelphia Board of Education approved a preliminary $3.9 billion 2023 budget on Thursday, despite protests from several principals and their bargaining unit that it doesn’t invest enough in schools.

This was only the first board vote, on the so-called lump sum budget. Next, there will be hearings before the board and city council in April and May. The board is required to adopt a final budget by May 31. The preliminary budget passed 8-0 as part of the board’s “consent agenda.”

The board also heard a plea from City Councilmember Helen Gym to embrace a bold new vision and fund the district from a growth mindset, not one that assumes a shrinking student population.

The Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the principals’ union, also challenged the estimate underlying the allotments that enrollment will decline by 7,000 students next year compared to before the pandemic.

“We’ve got a question of whether we truly invest in and value the children and families and communities here in our city, or whether we’re going to leave them behind,” Gym said. “That’s not a question for Harrisburg, that’s not a question for city hall, that’s going to be determined right here in this building, and determined by all of us.”

A dozen principals and other district staff members also criticized the budget and spoke at the board meeting how their schools will be affected. 

“The problem is they use numbers as opposed to needs” to create cookie cutter budgets that will harm schools, said Tangela McClam, principal of Cassidy Elementary School in Overbrook. Her school, with 250 students, will lose six teachers, she said, or about 25% of her staff. 

She had been able to limit class size to about 15 students, but now will have to double some in size, she said.  

“We should not have to beg every year for what students need,” she said. 

Gym, McClam, and others said that enrollment decline will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if schools continue to be underfunded. ”We’re not going to accept these lower enrollments,” Gym said.

One of the resolutions the board approved Thursday was to hire contractors for three new school building projects. One of those projects is the construction of a new building for Cassidy that will hold 600 students – more than double the enrollment there now. McClam said when she arrived in 2014 there were 400 students, a number that has declined steadily since. 

The budget estimates the number of students in district-run schools will be around 110,000 students next year, with more than 80,000 in charter and cyber charter schools. As recently as the 2016-17 school year, the district’s enrollment was close to 130,000.

And while Philadelphia has had steady population growth over the past decade, it had a 25,000 population decline between July 2020 and July 2021, according to census data.

Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson told board members that the budget added $170 million to schools and will fund additional climate staff, more bilingual counseling assistants, and more robust special education services.

He explained how he had applied equity standards to the budgeting process. Small schools like Cassidy had been receiving as much as $1,900 more per pupil than larger schools because of the way positions are allotted. For instance, there is a mandate of having one counselor for every 600 students, but even if a school has fewer than 600 students, it has a counselor, meaning that small schools disproportionately benefit.

This year’s funding system sought to correct for that imbalance and reduced that per-pupil gap by about two-thirds. There are 68 schools in the district with enrollments under 350 students, and 24 with fewer than 250 enrolled.

Not all schools lost staff and other resources, but neither CASA nor district officials could estimate what percentage of schools came out ahead.

Monson’s preliminary lump sum budget and five-year outlook show a fund balance for next year of more than $500 million. But that will occur only if the Republican General Assembly approves Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed state budget, which calls for a record increase in state basic education aid to districts. It also revises how charter schools are funded. The changes Wolf wants would bring about $550 million in additional funds to Philadelphia’s schools next year.

But Harrisburg Republicans have pared down Wolf’s proposed education spending request each year, and have stalled on making changes to the charter funding formula, making it unlikely that this windfall will come through for the city.

In addition, Republican legislative leaders, via a landmark fair funding lawsuit, are opposing efforts to require the state to devote more state revenue to education and distribute it differently, in order to close the gap in spending between wealthy and low-income districts.

Monson told the board that he was careful to use the infusion of federal pandemic aid on non-recurring expenses, like school construction and repair. That money must be spent or obligated by September 2024.. 

Unlike every other district in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia has no taxing power of its own and must rely on the state and the city for most of its revenue.

But overall, Monson agreed with board member Lisa Salley when she said, “In essence, we are dividing a pie that is too small.” 

The principals’ association had asked that every school, regardless of size, be assigned five positions – an assistant principal, a climate manager, a math and literacy coach, and a special education compliance manager. That request is not included in the budget, but schools did get discretionary money that principals could use to pay for these positions, although in most cases not enough to fund all of them, or even one.

Kahlia Johnson, principal of Overbrook High School, told the board that every school needs people in these important positions.

She explained that one day, as she was finishing up required paperwork, a student named Shelly walked into her office and said she had nowhere to live because her mother threw her out. The student said  she stayed at school as late as she could, then she and her sister rode SEPTA until 11 p.m. They slept in an abandoned building. Johnson dropped everything to help her. 

“Shelly’s life is difficult,” Johnson told board members. 

Gym, who launched her political career as an education activist and is considered a potential mayoral candidate next year, urged the board not to repeat the scenario that occurred when Superintendent William Hite took over the district in 2012. At that time in the face of plummeting state aid, the district eliminated all nurses, counselors, and librarians, among other major staff cuts.

The district was under state control at the time, and Hite spent his first few years dealing with the ramifications of the cuts and the rest of his term attempting to rebuild. Hite is leaving in June, and a new superintendent will start in July. 

“We lost thousands and thousands of staff members, and we lost a chance to really see our city grow and thrive,” Gym told a rally outside the building before the meeting started. She noted that it was “a movement of teachers, of educators, of school staff, loving community members, of union workers, and people who believed in investing in this city” who “turned that whole narrative upside down.”  

The city took back control of the district in 2017 after the state determined that it was financially stable and no longer in acute academic distress.

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