342 Phila. School District workers laid off

Hundreds turned out for a strategy, policy, and priorities meeting on Jan. 13, 2014. Dr. William Hite, Jr, Superintendent of Schools talks to one of the groups. School officials acknowledge today that 300-plus layoff notices are going out. (CHARLES FOX/Staff Photographer/File)

Without the all-important cigarette tax, 1,300 employees of the perpetually strapped Philadelphia School District could get pink slips in August. But the ax has already fallen on 342 school employees, mostly noontime aides and special-education assistants, who began receiving layoff notices Thursday.

No teachers will be affected by the current wave of layoffs, which are unrelated to the state funding mess.

Philadelphia School District officials confirmed the layoffs and emphasized that the moves were separate from the stalled cigarette-tax legislation that has imperiled $45 million in state funding for the coming school year.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Wednesday that if the cigarette tax was not enacted by Aug. 15, he would have to begin the larger wave of layoffs and would consider delaying the opening of school.

Members of Parents United for Public Education, a grassroots group, said they were consulting legal counsel over the layoffs. They are particularly concerned about the loss of the bilingual counseling assistant and the aides who work with special-education children.

"You hear this phrase, 'Cut to the bone,' but we're breaking limbs," said Sabra Townsend, a Parents United member. "This is brinkmanship, and it has to stop."

Townsend said she and others were concerned about the district's ability to meet students' needs at the proposed staffing levels.

Overall, 342 workers are being laid off effective July 31. District officials said those reductions were based mostly on decisions principals had made about individual school budgets.

The layoffs were not based on seniority; officials have said they believed that the School Reform Commission has the power to let employees go without regard to seniority. The teachers' union is challenging that position.

Raven Hill, a district spokeswoman, said the school system was eliminating a group of special-education assistants who had been classified as on "special assignment," and paid at a higher rate, due to previous position eliminations. She said the higher pay rate was costing the district $1.42 million annually.

Hill said those affected by this round of layoffs would be eligible to select from lower-paying jobs as they became available.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called the layoffs "yet another crippling blow to the schoolchildren who rely most on the support provided by these educators."

"The nightmare of an underfunded education system continues for our school district," Jordan said in a statement.

Robert McGrogan, president of the school principals' union, said he took issue with "principals being blamed for making these decisions. They built budgets based on the resources they were given, and they were given inadequate resources."

McGrogan said he found it curious that the district was laying off workers but still hiring for multiple supervisory, nonschool-based positions.

"I just find it unconscionable that the layoffs that are occurring are, for the most part, jobs that provide direct service to children in schools," McGrogan said. "If your commitment is actually to the students in the classroom that you're supporting, support staff is the last thing you should be cutting."

On the layoff list are 157 special-education classroom assistants; 147 noontime aides; 15 prekindergarten teacher assistants; eight assistant principals; four career and technical-support assistants; three conflict-resolution specialists; two each of library assistants, community relations liaisons, and central office employees; one bilingual counseling assistant; and one sign-language interpreter.



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