by Diane Payne
April 29, 2017
The March 23 meeting of the School Reform Commission had been posted on the School District (SD) website for months as a regularly scheduled Action Meeting. For some reason, many of us who called the district to sign up to speak were told we had to speak on the topic of next year’s budget. APPS sent an email to the SRC requesting that they inform the district employees who take registration information that the district had never posted this as a budget meeting and that the public cannot be barred from speaking on general topics at any SRC Action Meeting.
Incredibly, the SRC made it even more confusing for those who tried to speak at the April 20 meeting. At first, callers were told they could only speak on the budget. Those who called on subsequent days were told they could speak on anything EXCEPT the budget, as they already had the limit for that one topic. The SRC was actually taking the position that they only wanted to hear from six members on the public about a $2.9 billion budget. Only the City itself, at $4 billion, has a larger budget than the school district. On the day before the meeting, some callers were told that they could not speak at all. Not until letters were sent by APPS, and action was taken by the office of Councilwoman Helen Gym, did the SRC allow all of those who called to speak. APPS’ Karel Kilimnik challenged the SRC to end the disinformation, confusion and lack of transparency.
All four commissioners—Chair Joyce Wilkerson, Commissioners Chris McGinley, Farah Jiminez, and Bill Green—were present. A confirmation hearing for Estelle Richman, nominated by Governor Wolf months ago, has yet to be scheduled. Harrisburg continues to inflict the SRC on Philadelphia but will not take the time to make sure all of its seats are filled.
Five members of APPS spoke at this SRC meeting. Click here to see their testimony and those of other community members who spoke on the budget, lack of transparency and the PFT contract..
CFO’s Budget Report
District Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson gave a 5-minute presentation on a $2.8 BILLION dollar budget—a single page of figures for the FY 18-22 financial plan. Where money is going and how money is spent is indiscernible from the single page of figures and from the presentation. Monson acknowledged the $65 windfall from the city’s reassessment of commercial properties, but recommended that the money be spent on early literacy initiatives and eliminating split grades. This would result in the hiring of an additional 112 teachers. The tenacious George Bezanis of the PFT’s Caucus of Working Educator’s shouted from the back “What about the PFT contract?” Superintendent Hite responded that getting teachers a contract was a “priority” and meetings were scheduled with the PFT. Haven’t we heard that—many times—before? After four years, they are only empty words.
After Monson’s presentation, commissioners questioned him for about 20 minutes on specifics. Munson explained that a portion of the unexpected money must go to charter schools as well. He stressed that the numbers in this budget were based on what is actually available right now as funding streams. If no new revenue becomes available, we can expect to again resort to cuts beginning in FY 19.
More Services Needed for ELL Students
A large group of ESOL students attended. Six testified about services that should be provided by the district but are not, including translators and bi-lingual counselors. They were supported by their fellow students, who stood in solidarity as all six students testified. These young women and men put a very real face on the difficulties they deal with every day in getting an education and navigating the system. Some of the students urged the SRC to settle the contract dispute so they would not lose more of their valued teachers.
Still No Contract
Three district staff members testified to the harm of the continuing lack of a PFT contract. These school professionals have struggled for four years without a new contract and for five years without raise. They are the front lines in our schools: teaching, supporting and loving the children of Philadelphia—only to face the ongoing disrespect of the SRC. Countless teachers have left and continue to leave because of the inability to sustain their families and the lack of respect from district administration. With the unexpected windfall from the city’s reassessment of commercial properties, the district will see an added $65 million per year. Yet nothing was noted in the budget presentation regarding funds for a contract. A remark from Superintendent Hite gave lip service to the priority of gaining a contract but the men and women of the PFT need a fair contract NOW—not just words.
APPS’ Lisa Haver pointed out to the commissioners that understanding a budget this large is difficult for lay people. She suggested that Uri Monson provide a tutorial for the public on how to understand the district’s budget. Monson was open to suggestions on how to address this request, and APPS is having conversations with him about the best way to inform people of how their tax dollars are being spent. Stay posted.
Several speakers pointed out that charter schools with serious academic and financial shortcomings continue to be funded by the district even after the SRC’s own Charter School Office (CSO) strongly recommended non-renewal. Aspira Stetson and Olney, along with Universal Audenried and Vare, have been operating long past their 5-year term. This is a violation of the PA Charter Law. Mastery, Shoemaker, Clymer, and Gratz are also outside of the required timeframe for renewal in spite of the district’s own data, which shows a notable lack of improvement. When is this SRC going to do its job?
The SRC has scheduled a special meeting, with less than a week’s notice, for Monday May 1 at 3 PM. According to news reports, the purpose of this meeting is to vote on 26 charter renewals. APPS sent a letter to SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson, calling on her to postpone that meeting. No resolutions have been posted, just a list of some of the schools they may vote on. The public has no way to know what the SRC will be voting on.
To speak at this SRC meeting, call the SRC office at 215-400-4010 (NOT the usual #). Remember, you have the right to speak at any SRC meeting on any topic relating to school district issues.