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Phila. schools to see 16 percent layoffs

Facing an "unprecedented" fiscal crisis, the Philadelphia School District could shed 3,820 employees - 16 percent of its workforce - and is planning for more painful cuts, including losing full-day kindergarten, officials said Wednesday.

Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman (center) with member Joseph Dworetzky (left) and Chair Robert L. Archie Jr. at the school commission meeting. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman (center) with member Joseph Dworetzky (left) and Chair Robert L. Archie Jr. at the school commission meeting. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)Read more

Facing an "unprecedented" fiscal crisis, the Philadelphia School District could shed 3,820 employees - 16 percent of its workforce - and is planning for more painful cuts, including losing full-day kindergarten, officials said Wednesday.

At a hearing on the district's $2.7 billion budget, Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch told the School Reform Commission (SRC) that to close a $629 million gap, the district must also make painful trims in areas ranging from gifted and alternative education to transportation and counselors. Class sizes will go up; individual school budgets will go down.

A still-soft economy, flat city revenues, and sharp cuts in state aid combined with the loss of federal stimulus money have hit the district of 155,000 students hard, Masch said.

For the first time in decades, the district's total revenues will decrease. Masch projected that the district's revenues will drop by 12 percent, or $377 million.

"We didn't have any good choices left," Masch told the SRC. "We only had bad choices."

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer, said she feared that the academic gains the district has made over the last eight years might be wiped away.

"Everything that we see here today is disturbing," Shorr said. "It's hard to imagine we're going to be continuing progress with these cuts."

Along with other big cities forced to lay off teachers and slash programs, Philadelphia, Shorr said, "will be paying for this for years."

Projections could change before the SRC adopts a final budget May 31, Masch said, depending on whether new funds become available or whether the situation worsens.

The current budget picture contains a number of assumptions, including the district's getting $75 million in givebacks from its unions and receiving $57 million worth of charter school funding relief from the state.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said in an interview that he would not renegotiate.

His members, he said, have already had a wage freeze and can give no more.

"I have been very clear with the district," Jordan said. "We are not reopening our contract."

The district has already begun conversations on new terms with some of its other unions, officials said. Legally, the SRC may impose terms on unions, though Masch said "the preference of the School District is to bargain with our collective-bargaining units."

Under the current proposal, the district stands to reduce its central office by 50 percent, or more than 400 positions. It would cut 1,260, or 12 percent, of its teachers. Almost 650 noontime aide positions would be lost, along with nearly 400 custodians, more than 180 counselors, and 51 nurses.

The actual number of layoffs is not clear. The district has offered an early-retirement incentive, but the number of staff taking advantage is not known.

Cuts would hit classrooms hard. Each school's discretionary budget would be reduced by about 30 percent. Common planning time would be wiped away completely. There would be a 50 percent cut to gifted education, a 30 percent reduction to vocational education, a 20 percent reduction to services for English-language learners, a 9 percent reduction in instrumental music, and a 5 percent reduction to special education.

There would be cuts to nurses (10 percent), psychologists (6 percent), and athletics (7 percent), including the elimination of interscholastic athletics in middle schools.

Facilities would take a 16 percent cut. School police would take a 9 percent cut, including a reduction of 190 per diem officer positions.

The transportation budget would be hit particularly hard, with a 44 percent cut. The district will bus only those pupils it is legally mandated to - special-education and charter students.

Under state law, if the district does not bus its own regular-education students, it is not required to bus nonpublic students, officials said.

Still, officials managed to spare some things.

Class sizes, under this budget proposal, would stay within contractual maximums of 30 students in kindergarten through third grade and 33 in grades four through 12.

And some initiatives in Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's Imagine 2014 strategic plan would stay in place but get less money, including summer programs - which would get 50 percent less funding.

Also still in place would be the district's Promise Academies, low-performing schools turned around with extra funds, longer school days and years, and new staffs. The extra per-student funds each of 18 Promise Academies will receive would be reduced by half, to $215 per student.

Giving extra resources to schools that have underperformed for decades is a priority, even in this most painful of budget years, Masch said.

"We cannot allow the status quo to continue," he said.

Early-childhood programs will take a 14 percent cut, losing about 1,000 spots.

Jordan said he was particularly troubled by the cuts to kindergarten and early childhood, which he called "shortsighted and indiscriminate."

There are about 13,000 students enrolled in kindergarten. The elimination of the full-day program would save $22 million.

Full-day kindergarten began in Philadelphia in 1996 under Superintendent David Hornbeck and Mayor Ed Rendell. It was a cornerstone of Hornbeck's school-improvement plan, one he said he needed to drive education results up in a city where many students come to school unprepared for learning. The reform was a key part of the test-score improvements the School District saw under Hornbeck's tenure, he said in an interview.

Full-day kindergarten, he said, is the last thing that the district should cut.

"Based on evidence in Philadelphia and across the country, I can't think of any decision that would be more ill-advised for Philadelphia's children," Hornbeck said. "I would probably approach the challenges they face by saying, 'What's the first thing I'm not going to cut,' and it would be full-day kindergarten."

Masch took exception to the notion that any cut was indiscriminate.

"These cuts were agonized over and thought about very carefully," Masch told the SRC. But, he said, "we are open to any good idea for how to do this better."

As painful as the proposed budget is, things could get worse, Masch said.

If charter school enrollment grows beyond the current planned expansion, or if the district gets less money back from reopening union contracts, for instance, more programs could be eradicated.

At risk if things worsen, Masch said, are the entire athletic, summer, instrumental music, and even half-day kindergarten programs.

Parent Desiree Whitfield appeared close to tears at the budget hearing.

"This," she said, "is total agony."

District Budget Hearings

The Philadelphia School District has scheduled a series of community meetings for the public to weigh in on its proposed 2011-12 budget. The schedule:

Tuesday, May 3, at 6 p.m., Meredith Elementary, 725 S. Fifth St.

Saturday, May 7, at 10 a.m., Dunbar Elementary, 1750 N. 12th St.

Monday, May 9, at 6 p.m., Conwell Middle, 1849 E. Clearfield St.

Saturday, May 14, at 10 a.m., Catherine Elementary, 6600 Chester Ave.

Monday, May 16, at 6 p.m., Fitzpatrick Elementary, 11061 Knights Rd.

Thursday, May 19, at 6 p.m., Ellwood Elementary, 6701 N. 13th St.EndText

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