Back to School FAQ 2014

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(Photo: Harvey Finkle)

 

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What’s going on?

School opens September 8th after the District made another $30 million in cuts, including 400+ layoffs (noontime aides and special education classroom assistants were the hardest hit). The District took this action after Harrisburg legislators failed to pass a cigarette tax bill, leaving the district $81 million short of last year’s inadequate budget. Harrisburg will review the cigarette tax again in mid-September. Hundreds of school-based jobs rely on the passage of that cigarette tax bill.

How will my school be affected?

Most schools will see little improvement in resources and staffing from the previous year. Every school is guaranteed one principal, one secretary, a building engineer, the contractually mandated number of teachers, and noon time aides. Principals received an allotment based on “school need” which they could use to purchase more staff. As a parent, you have the right to view every school budget.

Parents should be prepared for the following:

  • potential for overcrowding and adjusted staffing change in November due to “leveling,” a process where the district moves staff from school to school to avoid hiring needed personnel;
  • fewer special education assistants and noon-time aides (almost 300 were laid off)
  • 27 elementary schools will now have a PT not FT safety officer;
  • reduced cleaning supplies for schools ($9M in savings);
  • insufficient, and in some cases zero, dollars for books and supplies;
  • part-time school counselors; one nurse per 1500 students; libraries and centers that could not open last year due to funding will likely remain shuttered.

Will my child receive free transportation this year?

Parents United for Public Education worked with the Archdiocese to push back a District proposal which would have disqualified over 7,500 high school students from the free transpass program through SEPTA. As a result, we successfully maintained the current 1.5 mile distance for eligiblity. There is no change in yellow school bus transportation. You can read more about the transportation victory here.

What is the current financial situation?

The District remains at least $40-50 million short of last year’s budget because Harrisburg failed to pass the cigarette tax bill. If the bill does not pass, Supt. Hite has said schools will see massive layoffs and budget cuts in mid-October.

Here’s how we got to this stage: Last spring the District requested a $300+ million financial package from the city and state last spring. This is money above what is allotted for schools through the normal city and state budget process.

  • The City provided $120 million via a 1% sales tax extension. While good news, this money had been promised in Sept. 2013, and the one year delay contributed to layoffs that caused chaos throughout the district last year.
  • The City allowed the District to borrow about $28 million last year, and is supposed to approve the District borrowing $27 million this coming year. Note: borrowing does not equal funding.
  • The State provided only $12 million in additional money, down from the $29 million they had originally promised. Both figures are far below what had been requested by the district.
  • A cigarette tax which will bring in about $45-50 million this year has yet to be approved by the General Assembly. They will reconvene in late September to discuss the bill. The District says it loses over $1.5 million a week while Harrisburg fails to act.
  • The District made another $30 million in cuts to open schools on time.

Is there any additional money that could come to the District?

Not really. If the cigarette tax passes, it will leave schools in the same position. Neither the city nor the state did any hard lifting in this round of budget crises despite all the perceived flurry of activity.

What about the teachers contract?

Teachers begin another year without a contract. Last year the District had demanded $133 million in wage and benefit cuts, no additional pay, and work rule changes including the elimination of certain teacher protections and mandates requiring specific personnel in schools. The good news is that the District has backed off asking teachers for salary cuts (Philadelphia teachers earn significantly less than surrounding suburbs). They still are asking for benefit contributions but refuse to put a number on their request. They are also asking for “work rule changes” but will not fully or clearly define those changes for the public. Parents United believe the District should negotiate a short-term contract focused on reasonable concessions. We believe work rule changes should be a public discussion and should be coupled with a stable funding environment and a focus on responsible school-based budgets.

What are our legal options to seek fair funding from the state?

Parents United is currently working with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia to file formal complaints against the Pennsylvania Dept. of Education to address deficiencies in the school code with regard to individual schools. Last year we filed more than 800 complaints from 90 different schools about insufficient resources and staffing that we believed violated the Pennsylvania state code governing educational services. As a result of the complaints, some schools received more nurses and the state restored $45 million last fall to rehire hundreds of special education staff, school counselors, and other school based staff targeted by the complaints. We are re-opening this process for the current school year at www.myphillyschools.com.

In terms of lawsuits, Philadelphia has sued twice (1976 and 1999) through the state courts to get fair funding and failed. In both cases, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the state constitution placed the power to decide appropriate education funding in the legislature, not the courts. It’s important to remember that legal suits, even in states where it has been successful, have taken years before additional money is allocated to underfunded districts. Currently, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Education Law Center are working to potentially bring a  funding case with school districts statewide so that the courts can see this is a statewide problem, not a Philadelphia one.

What are Parents United’s priorities in this crisis?

Our priorities this year are to develop an active base of parents at schools citywide who are focused on:

  • adequate and equitable school based staffing and resources citywide – no split grades (unless they have an academic basis with trained staff), responsible class size (no classes above the limits and no effort to force class size toward the limits), lower class size in grades K-3, restoration of counselors, a full-time nurse in every school, and funding for basic school supplies, textbooks, workbooks, programs, etc.
  • safe schools focused on anti-bias environments and with a restorative justice approach toward climate as well as discipline;
  • quality teaching and learning that values student voice, experience and multicultural frameworks over remedial and standardized test prep;
  • school communities that embrace and are responsive and centered in the neighborhoods and communities which they serve and in which they reside.

Who else is active in this struggle citywide?

There are a number of groups engaged in this struggle. Various Home and School Associations are active citywide. PCAPs is a broad coalition working to organize protests and marches. Education Voters PA and PCCY are working on local and state lobbying. Active student groups include the Philadelphia Student Union, Youth United for Change, BPSOS-Delaware Valley, and others. P.O.W.E.R. is an interfaith coalition of 40+ congregations which has made education one of its priority issues. In terms of staff, Teacher Action Group, Caucus of Working Educators, and the PFT all have active mobilization efforts. Guidance counselors have formed a Philly School Counselors United group, and school nurses have come together citywide as an active force for health care rights in schools.

What can parents do?

  1. File a complaint: It’s easy. According to state law, you have a right to file a complaint if your child has insufficient resources for a “thorough and efficient” education. Read our primer “Know your legal rights” and then take 10 minutes and file a complaint online. Your complaint goes to the State Dept. of Education and to our attorneys at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. You may be contacted about your complaint.
  2. Lobby for your local school: It’s more than fundraising and showing up at the monthly parent meetings. Our schools need parents as vocal advocates. Wear your school t-shirt, carry a sign with your school name, testify on your school’s behalf, meet your legislator and councilperson. Know your school’s needs, prioritize what you want, and work with as many parents as you can to advocate for children. Use our Action Toolkit for help.
  3. Target your elected officials: There are many problems with the district, but right now it’s all about FUNDING, FUNDING, FUNDING. That means our city and state officials need to feel the heat. They should not get a single day’s rest if our children are going to schools in unsafe conditions and not fully ready for learning. Call and schedule visits. Write letters and be as relentless with them as they are with us in calling for accountability in funding.
  4.  Build unity across coalitions: This isn’t just about our individual schools. Our strongest role as parents is to send a unified message across geographic lines and for all schools that public education matters. Build lobbying groups that reflect your school and community. Don’t forget to include neighborhood civic associations, businesses, and other academic and community sponsors who can be supportive of your school
  5. Remain hopeful: Doing this work – especially in crisis – is hard and often feels slow and defeating. Find ways to support yourself and one another. Take time to celebrate your accomplishments. Build a new generation of parent leaders to continue your work.

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