Philadelphia schools almost didn’t open this fall, after a $304 million budget cut forced 4,000 layoffs. Though $45 million in state emergency aid released in October is helping make progress toward recovery, the district remains without basic services that most administrators take for granted, such as vice principals and secretaries in every school.
The $304 million cut was the result of years of debt from pension costs and students leaving the city or migrating to charters. It left the 2013-2014 budget—for the nation’s eighth-largest school district of about 150,000 students—at $2.3 billion. Philadelphia schools also lost $134 million in federal funding, due in part to an expiration of stimulus funds and sequestration. The district shuttered 24 schools last summer.
“For the first time in decades, we committed to only spend what we knew was available,” Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite told DA. “That $304 million loss translated to reducing staff and significant eliminations in programs and services to students.”
Teacher layoffs led to larger classes with a maximum of 33 students each. Schools with less than 600 students, which comprise about 60 percent of the district, do not have a permanent guidance counselor on staff. Music, art, and sports were eliminated, but have now been restored with the state funding.
About 2,000 employees of the 4,000 laid off returned to the district when the funding came through, including some secretaries, vice principals, teachers, and guidance counselors. But every area still faces a shortage, from school-based staff to administrators.
“Many students preparing for college have run into challenges because we don’t have guidance counselors in every high school every day,” Hite says. “Others have been struggling with social and emotional issues, and we need to make sure structures are in place so there are individuals there to help students.”
Another casualty of budget cuts has been school nurses. Two years ago, a round of cutbacks led the district to lay off 100 nurses, and those remaining rotate between buildings. Questions over this practice arose after the September death of a sixth grade student who suffered an asthma attack in a school with no nurse on duty that day. She went home, and died shortly afterward while her father was taking her to the emergency room.
Hite says the district is investigating what happened. However, the district meets the state-mandated ratio of one nurse per 1,500 students, so hiring more is not a priority. Hite advises other administrators facing massive cuts to stay in constant communication with staff and the public about all actions taken.
“The No. 1 thing is to make the hard decisions right away, because they will only compound and grow worse the longer you wait to take action,” Hite says. All decisions should be data-driven, he adds.
“You can never forget the purpose of this work, which is to serve children,” he says. “Even in the face of cuts, you need to make sure you are constantly evolving processes and systems to be better at training teachers and growing leaders, and thinking about where programs are yielding the results you need.”