The Philadelphia School District asks the city to increase its annual budget by $318 million within four years

The Philadelphia School District asks the city to increase its annual budget by $318 million within four years

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  • February 1, 2023
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The Philadelphia school board on Tuesday asked City Council to increase its annual budget by $318 million within four years, and pressed the city to do more to help educate its students.

“We are calling on you to balance the needs of our students with the needs of residents, and to commit to fully funding our schools,” board member Lisa Salley said at its biannual meeting required by the City Charter. Recent research cited by the board shows that the Philadelphia School District needs an additional $1.14 billion annually to adequately educate its students.

The ask was one of many at a frank, often-tense Council hearing on the state of the Philadelphia School District, with school board members taking an unusually impassioned, pointed tone not seen since it was established in 2018 after the district emerged from state control. The hearing followed a school board meeting last week where members upbraided the city for failing its children, and a lawsuit it filed the week before challenging new city regulations that put tighter controls on environmental conditions inside district schools.

Philadelphia’s school system has to make such an ask because it cannot raise its own money. Alone among Pennsylvania districts, it relies largely on City Hall, and Harrisburg, to fund the vast majority of its budget.

In addition to the supplemental $318 million, the board asked the city to increase funds to expand Safe Paths, a grant-funded district program that pays community members to ensure students’ safety on their way to and from school; and to “provide adequate funding for all libraries and recreation centers so that they are open after school, on the weekends, and through the summer,” board member Sarah-Ashley Andrews said.

The board also asked the city to bolster mental health services inside schools — it has already placed behavioral health workers in school buildings citywide — through more public-private partnerships and what they hope could be the creation of a Philadelphia Mental Health Service Corps that provides training, scholarships, and loan repayment for people who commit to working with Philadelphians harmed by gun violence.

To address the district’s staffing challenges, the board asked the city to provide street parking around schools for staff, to provide SEPTA passes for those who take public transit, and to offer loan forgiveness, housing vouchers, or other incentives to entice Philadelphians to work inside district schools.

The parking was a particular flash point for Council. School board vice president Mallory Fix-Lopez said it was necessary because schools in neighborhoods particularly affected by gun violence often have a tough time attracting and retaining staff.

“God bless you on that one,” Council President Darrell L. Clarke said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who would like to have parking on their street, let alone their workplace. I’ll let you figure that one out.”

Councilmember Jim Harrity, who lives in Kensington, bristled, too, at the board’s ask.

“If your teachers are scared, how do you think my kids feel? I get you guys want parking, but we have other issues that we need to deal with, starting with the violence in that neighborhood and the things they have to see on their way to school,” said Harrity.

“If we can’t figure out parking for public school teachers, we’re doomed as a city,” Fix-Lopez said, noting that research shows teacher turnover is particularly harmful for vulnerable students.

Mayor Jim Kenney interjected, suggesting the district pilot a system where teachers park in remote locations and then are bused to school, a model that large employers like Thomas Jefferson University Hospital use.

And Councilmember Jamie Gauthier recalled that parking concerns at Powel Elementary in West Philadelphia led the city to create a special permit for employees at the school to purchase. The permits have not been widely used, she said, but the program could be tweaked and expanded.

Other members of Council used the opportunity to call out the district’s poor academic performance. Philadelphia ranks among the lowest performers among big-city school districts nationally; districtwide, 36% of city students meet standards in reading, and 22% in math.

“We’ve always made sure the district got their proper amount of funding, always,” Kenyatta Johnson said. “But we’ve never seen the needle move in terms of our young people’s achievement.”

Board member Joyce Wilkerson said the district has pivoted to a much sharper focus on academics and accountability.

“We don’t have the right curriculum, we don’t support our teachers uniformly, we don’t put our strongest teachers in front of the most challenged children,” said Wilkerson, who was board president until December. “We’re going to have to do things differently.”

Though questions about the district’s struggling academics are appropriate and important, Fix-Lopez said, some of the onus still falls on city government.

“We need the support to work with the city to focus on what’s going on outside the school,” she said.

Some Council members noted the tension of the meeting — “It’s like an us-vs.-them conversation,” said Johnson — and Isaiah Thomas, chair of the education committee, asked board president Reginald Streater to discuss “the elephant in the room”: the lawsuit.

Because of the litigation, Streater said he was limited in what he could say, other than “the district is happy and willing to continue the negotiations to come to some resolution so that we all can be on the same page as well.”

Streater characterized the current tensions between the city and board as “growing pains” as both figure out what local control can and should look like in Philadelphia.

“The board really wants to partner and work in a symbiotic relationship with you,” he said.

The two entities will meet again this spring at the district’s budget hearing. The budget needs to be finalized by the end of May.

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