Robin Cooper is clear: Philadelphia principals barely have enough money to fund schools’ basic needs, and that’s got to change.
“We cannot make the necessary gains when we are lacking in the resources,” said Cooper, president of Philadelphia’s principals’ union. “The resources must reach the schools.”
Principals took their case to politicians, school board members, and members of the public with a town hall Wednesday night, part of an unprecedented push to revamp the way the Philadelphia School District doles out resources to schools. The current system distributes money based on school enrollment, not need — often forcing them to choose among essential positions, or to forgo them.
Organized by their union, Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, Teamsters Local 502, the principals are demanding change from the school board and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.’s administration, guaranteeing certain positions get funded at every school.
They’re asking for the school system to begin by centrally funding math and reading specialists, assistant principals, special-education liaisons, and climate managers.
Now, some schools are able to afford all those positions and others aren’t.
“The reality is this is an issue of equity,” said Kimberly Ellerbee, principal of Powel Elementary in West Philadelphia. “If some and not all of our schools have these positions, then some, not all, of our students have what they need to ensure success.”
At Powel, students have made gains in reading and math thanks in part to the support of reading and math specialists who work with teachers and small groups of students. A grant paid for one of those positions, and Drexel University paid for another, but the money is drying up and she’s set to lose both in the fall.
The cries are timely: It’s budget season for the school board and its two main funders, the city and state. District officials are proposing to spend $3.2 billion for the 2021-22 school year.
With most of the district’s students out of classrooms for more than a year, the urgency for more support is even greater, speakers said.
Students are “going to need a lot of support,” said the Rev. Dwayne Royster, a pastor and leader of POWER, a Philadelphia social justice organization. “We need to make sure their math is strengthened. We need to make sure they have all the climate support they need.”
Board members present said they heard the principals and would be reflecting school realities in the decisions they make in the coming weeks.
“One of the things I am committed to is making sure our budget is a reflection of our priorities,” board member Mallory Fix Lopez said. “I am focused on people power — people over products.”
Representing Hite, Alicia Prince, the district’s chief of staff, said the administration was “taking lots of notes, and we appreciate everything that we’re hearing.”
Otis Hackney, the city’s chief education officer and a former principal of South Philadelphia High School, said that the principals had his support and that he would go even further, asking for money for more counselors in schools.
“I’m a firm believer in high expectations, high support,” said Hackney. “I know we have a tough situation based on the city’s current circumstances, but we are looking to provide as much support as we can.”
Though more than $1 billion is coming Philadelphia’s way via the federal COVID-19 relief package, speakers fielded questions about whether that money can go to help fund the requested positions. But the district is loath to spend one-time funds on recurring costs, lest it have to cut those staffers when the money runs out.
But, Fix Lopez said, other options are on the table, including reallocating existing funds.
The district should look at “what is not working here, what needs to be shifted and restructured in order to make those dollars meet the needs of students,” Fix Lopez said.
Board member Maria McColgan said education advocates should be “marching on Harrisburg, marching on Washington. Our schools need more funding.”