Philly schools to add teachers, save against federal cuts with new city money

District staff, including Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. (center) told the SRC and the public that they would use a city windfall to pay for additional teachers and to save against possible federal cuts to schools. Also shown in this file photo are SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson (left) and Commissioner Farah Jimenez (right).

Armed with a $65 million annual windfall, thanks to the city’s reassessment of commercial properties, the Philadelphia School District will invest in more teachers and sock money away against a possible loss of federal education dollars.

The school system plans to hire 66 teachers, officials told the School Reform Commission at Thursday's hearing on the district’s proposed $2.9 billion 2017-18 budget, to eliminate virtually all split classes — those where students from different grades learn in the same classroom with one teacher.

The district will also  hire 47 teachers to end leveling in grades kindergarten through 3. Through that process, some schools now lose educators in October if enrollment is under projections. Students and staff describe that process as enormously disruptive. In total, the district will spend $13 million on the extra teachers.

“Leveling has been a long nightmare for teachers and students and principals in the district,” said SRC member Christopher McGinley, a longtime educator.

Uri Monson, the district’s chief financial officer, said the district would also set aside more than $17 million annually to cover costs now paid for by federal Title II money. The Trump administration has proposed eliminating that program, which now pays for teacher training and early-literacy programs.

If the school system’s spending on its own schools increases, payments to charter schools go up, so Monson said some of the money must also be set aside to cover those costs.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he had another priority for the budget: contracts for the district’s teachers and principals. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has been without a contract for almost four years and without a raise for five; the principals’ union voted down a pact last year.

“It’s important to invest in fair contracts, and we are committed to doing that,” Hite said.

There has been a cry from teachers to allocate the entirety of new city money annually to a new labor contract, a suggestion that has been roundly rejected by the district.

The district still projects a massive deficit — $714 million over five years. Without course correction, it will have to cut programs.

Beyond information about how it plans to use the new money, there were scant details about the budget. SRC Chairwoman Joyce Wilkerson said City Council and the public would get the full picture in early May, when details are completed.

Students, teachers, and members of the public told the SRC they want a budget that emphasizes classroom spending and gives educators a new contract.

A number of students spoke about a lack of adequate staff to help students learning English.

Benxin Lin attends Furness High School in South Philadelphia, where more than half of the students are English-language learners. Being an immigrant is hard, especially with limited staff to assist, he said.

“Sometimes, I have to wait for days to get help,” Lin said.

Hite said that help would be forthcoming.

“There’s a variety of resources that we’re trying to push out to schools that have significant needs,” the superintendent said. Some will get additional bilingual assistants, some will get climate managers, and others conflict-resolution specialists.

There will be some additional counselors, too, Hite said — some schools now have more than 700 students and just one counselor. Next year, the central office will provide money for those to get a second.

Frustrated teachers also sounded off on the budget, calling for the district to settle a pact soon.

“Teachers that can leave this district have bailed for greener pastures,” said Alan Foo, a teacher at Bayard Taylor Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

The school system, he added, was “bleeding talent.”

Though Thursday marked the only formal SRC hearing on the nearly $3 billion budget, the commission limited speakers on the topic, citing a policy that prohibits more than six speakers on any side of one issue.

Karel Kilimnik, a retired city teacher, said the district was furthering an adversarial relationship with the public by doing so.

“You make decisions with our tax dollars,” said Kilimnik.

The SRC is set to adopt a budget at the end of May. The district goes before City Council to present the spending plan May 10, and the public can address City Council on the subject May 17.