First draft of Philly’s $3.9 billion school budget approved to immediate backlash
Steep enrollment drops and a re-allocation of resources are driving smaller budgets at some schools; school leaders say the cuts would be disastrous.
The Philadelphia school board approved the broad outlines of a $3.9 billion spending plan Thursday night to immediate backlash from educators who say that despite millions in new investments, their schools will see significant cuts in 2022-23.
Overall, the Philadelphia School District will spend $170 million more than it did last year, but because of a change to the way resources are allocated, some schools will lose multiple teachers and other staff who support students.
The school system projects the best staff-to-student ratios in a decade, chief financial officer Uri Monson told the board: one teacher for every 12.3 students next year, better than 13.3 a decade ago. Including counselors and other school-based workers, the ratio is 1 adult per 6.6 students, vs. 1-7.4 in 2011.
Despite the new investments and better staff ratios generally, some schools are seeing sharp staff drops — multiple teachers, administrators, and other workers.
The disconnect, Monson said, stems from both a reallocation of resources and steep enrollment drops. The school system is bleeding about 4,000 students a year, and next year’s numbers will be compounded because the district will resume its practice of “leveling,” moving around teachers based on actual enrollment, typically done in October. Leveling was suspended this school year at a cost of about $42 million, paid for with federal relief funds.
“What you’re seeing is almost two years’ worth of enrollment loss hitting in one year,” Monson said.
Changes are also being made to how funds are distributed. Last year, the school system used federal money to give academically struggling schools two extra administrative positions and on-target schools one extra position. This year, offtrack schools will get one position, and on-track schools will get discretionary funds to spend as they see fit, with funds weighted for school size and student poverty.
A large number of small schools in the district meant that funds used to be distributed inequitably, officials said, with a higher per-pupil spend in smaller schools.
“We try to look at investments on a per-pupil basis, not a building basis,” said Monson.
The proposed budget funds a lower student-to-counselor ratio, additional hours for school climate staff, more special education and ESL teachers, as well as bilingual counseling assistants, and new partnerships with before- and after-school providers.
The “lump-sum” budget adoption is just the start of a budget process that will culminate in a May 26 vote on a final budget.
But there was immediate pushback on the proposed spending plan. At a public rally outside district headquarters and in testimony before the board, many speakers said they would fight for better.
City Councilmember Helen Gym urged the board to reject the projections of a loss of 7,000 students, and to work with the city to aggressively reengage families.
“We are disinvesting in Black and brown and immigrant students that desperately need resources to even have a fighting chance to come back,” Gym said.
A number of district staff said the proposed budget would starve their schools and cause chaos at the worst time for students reeling from the pandemic and a gun violence epidemic.
“Neighborhood parents see that chaos and make other choices,” Cassidy principal Tangela McClam told the board. “if we continue on this path, enrollment will continue to drop and we will continue to see school budgets cut. We will look up one day and ask, ‘How did we lose public education?’ and several fingers will point to these actions.”
Julian Graham, an assistant principal at Bartram High School, said the budget cuts will devastate needy students.
“There should never be a day when a principal has to beg for funding to give students the bare minimum,” Graham said.
The board also approved paying the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (PAID) $145 million to oversee the building of three new schools. The money authorizes PAID to fund and contract developers for new schools for Cassidy, in West Philadelphia, Thomas Holme, in the Northeast, and AMY at James Martin, in Port Richmond.
The projects will be fully funded by federal COVID-19 relief money.
“The goal is getting better facilities faster for students and families,” Monson said.