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Philly schools committing $80m in classroom resources in new budget picture

The investments are made possible by $1.1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds over three years.

Philadelphia School District officials plan to pour about $80 million in resources into classrooms beginning this fall, using American Recovery Act money for special education supports, mental health resources and additional positions for schools.
Philadelphia School District officials plan to pour about $80 million in resources into classrooms beginning this fall, using American Recovery Act money for special education supports, mental health resources and additional positions for schools.Read moreFILE PHOTO

The Philadelphia School District plans to pour about $80 million in resources to classrooms this fall — from supports for special-education students to behavioral health counselors for schools hit hard by gun violence.

Made possible by $1.1 billion federal COVID-19 relief funds over three years, the investments were announced Thursday night as part of a budget presentation by chief financial officer Uri Monson, who said the district is interested in “ensuring that we are spending this money in a fiscally responsible way, resulting in the greatest short-term and long-term impact for our students.”

The most significant commitment is a guarantee of additional administrative positions for every school in the district — two for struggling schools, one for on-track schools. Principals will get to choose from jobs including assistant principals, counselors, climate managers, librarians, or teachers. The district will spend $40 million on this endeavor, adding 335 positions.

» READ MORE: ‘This is a crisis’: Philly principals say student needs are increasing and the district needs to get more dollars into schools

Additional commitments include an intensive effort to accelerate evaluation efforts for students requiring special-education services, hiring 80 workers including school psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists. Longer term, the goal is a “systemwide redesign for a more proactive approach to serving students with special education needs,” Monson said.

The district will also pay for before- and after-school programs and more mental health services aimed at schools that serve students hit hardest by the city’s gun violence.

The final commitment is to create an office of diversity, equity, and inclusion to support antiracist work.

Parent, educator, and community support informed the resource allocation, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said.

It’s tough to put a precise price tag on the efforts, Monson said — the total spend will depend on which positions principals choose, and some details have yet to be finalized, but “this likely includes commitments of funds in excess of $80 million.”

The commitments are a major victory for district principals, who have spoken out sharply over the last month about the acute needs for more resources on the school level.

Robin Cooper, president of the district’s principals’ union, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the budget priorities. “We have changed the way that they have to look at budgeting; we’re just glad that all eyes are on the budget problems in Philadelphia.”

The commitments also drew kudos from board members.

“I’m optimistic about these budget proposals coming to the board,” board member Mallory Fix Lopez said. “I see a commitment to resources, not just rhetoric.”

» READ MORE: COVID-19 has upended education. How will schools solve for learning loss?

Final board adoption of the district’s $3 billion budget will come in May.

The board late Thursday night also voted to not renew charter agreements for Universal Charter School at Bluford, a K-6, and Universal Charter School at Daroff, a K-8, both former district-run schools in West Philadelphia. They were turned over to Universal in 2010 as part of the district’s Renaissance initiative, intended to revitalize struggling schools.

But while Universal — founded by record-industry legend Kenny Gamble — had promised “dramatic improvements,” district officials said the schools didn’t make sufficient academic gains.

A hearing officer who considered evidence from both sides agreed: From 2015 through 2019, fewer students at Daroff scored proficient or advanced in math and English language arts than students at similar schools, other charter schools, or district schools; the pattern was the same at Bluford in three out of the four school years.

The district also identified issues with fiscal management. Universal, which operates seven city charters, owed Bluford and Daroff money; the charters were also owed money by some of Universal’s other schools.

Universal has accused the district of bias. In letters sent a week earlier to Philadelphia City Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., CEO Penny Nixon said the district’s Charter Schools Office had used “unfair scoring and misleading information” to recommend nonrenewal of the two charters. District evaluators from the district gave the Universal schools lower scores than other charters with similar issues, Nixon said.

“This subjectivity and bias disproportionally impact African American founded and led charter schools and families,” Nixon wrote. “The renewal system is broken and biased and must be fixed. This notion that we cannot educate our children and serve our communities is false and must be addressed.”

The vote marked the second by the board to revoke charters granted under the Renaissance initiative.

In 2019, it voted against renewing Olney Charter High School and Stetson Charter School, a middle school in Kensington. ASPIRA of Pennsylvania, the nonprofit that runs the schools, appealed to a state board and also sued the school district.

The school board voted a year ago to begin nonrenewal proceedings against Bluford and Daroff. A hearing officer who presided over 13 days of testimony concluded earlier this year that the schools had violated provisions of their charters and failed to meet student performance requirements and “generally accepted standards of fiscal management.”

Universal’s education and real estate arms both owed money to Bluford and Daroff, as did some of the company’s other charters. In 2016, for instance, Daroff wrote off $326,000 that it was owed by Universal Education Cos., and $96,000 it was owed by Vare, another Universal charter, according to the hearing officer’s report.

Nixon, in her letters to Jones, said the district hadn’t flagged those transactions as problematic before recommending the charters for nonrenewal. “There was no personal financial benefit to any party resulting from the forgiveness of debt by the school on behalf of the management company,” she wrote.

Bluford, meanwhile, entered into a contract last year with Charter Choices, a firm that provides administrative services to schools, while continuing to pay Universal Community Homes for some of the same services, according to the report.

Both schools were not renewed by a 5 to 2 vote, with board members Lisa Salley and Cecelia Thompson opposed.

Board members expressed concerns with the schools’ financials and operations. But the crux of the problem, board vice president Leticia Egea-Hinton said, is the schools’ academics.

“Sometimes, I think we forget when these schools were created, they were supposed to do better, and in this instance, I think they failed to do that for our children,” Egea-Hinton said.

If the decisions stand, the schools would not close but remain open under district control. But the schools’ fate is still not sealed — Universal officials said after the vote they would immediately turn to the state’s Charter Appeals Board, which could reverse the board’s decision.

Universal “unequivocally objects” to the “biased, discriminatory, inequitable, and subjective recommendation, as well as the Board of Education’s vote of non-renewal for Universal Bluford and Universal Daroff,” according to a statement from the company. “The vote is a continued assault on Black-led and founded charter schools.”