This school year the School District of Philadelphia is taking a long-term approach to savings and by doing so city schools face drastic budget cuts.
“There is just a bare bones budget where you have enough for the teachers and the facility,” said Angelina Williams, president of the J.R. Masterman Home and School Association.
The district has not only continued the reduction of funding to schools, but it has also resorted to closing 23 schools. While the Spring Garden neighborhood was lucky to escape any school closings, these schools like many others in the city, still face a budget situation which could be detrimental to academic performance.
“The School District of Philadelphia continues to face dire financial circumstances. We are seeking to address our challenges through various means, but would like to state however, that deeper cuts to schools are not an option,” said Superintendent Dr. William Hite.
The district has an operating revenue of $2.35 billion dollars but operating expenditures of $2.66 billion, which leaves a $304 million gap. The district will experience a loss of about $134 million in federal grant funding in 2014 from reductions in Title I and II funds, federal sequestration budget reductions and other grant reductions and expirations. This is a loss of about 32 percent of the total federal grant funding.
“The need for structural balance moving forward is critical,” said Chief Financial Officer Matt Stanski of the School District of Philadelphia. “Not only to be able to begin investing in the educational quality of our children but to be able to mitigate risks that may come up from the district.”
To fill the gap the district has taken on the method of shared sacrifice. The school district is aiming to produce 20 percent of the budget gap in new city revenue, 39 percent by personnel savings, 39 percent from new state revenue and 2 percent in other savings.
Masterman is not facing closure but has been trying to survive with a stressed budget for years. The school has faced overcrowding and building damages. Masterman has 1,175 enrolled students in a building with a capacity of 800. Not every teacher has a classroom at Masterman and some classes take place in the auditorium, cafeteria and library.
“The choices at this point are to remain overcrowded or reduce the size of the school, not something I think you would want to do with the top performing public school in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Principal Marjorie Neff.
Neff said the school will continue to try and do more with less. The school is losing nearly $1.4 million from its operating budget allotments which is a 17 percent decrease in funding. Neff said she predicts about nine teachers will lose their positions.
“There is no way to accommodate it. We are going to be offering, in my way of thinking, an inadequate education to children. It is absolutely disgraceful,” Neff said. “The state and the city have the responsibility to make sure that every child is educated. I just don’t know how any school in the city of Philadelphia is going to provide even an adequate education, much less a world class education which is what all children should be entitled to.”
Neff said the school budget has enough money for just enough teachers for the student body but not for office staff, counselors, a librarian and after-school programs.
Williams said she believes it is hard to teach in an environment where there is no funding.
“With the cutting of programs, you are taking away some of the reason that some of the children go to school,” Williams said.
Not only will the cuts to extra programs potentially have a negative effect on student performance, but the cuts may also affect the teachers’ ability to have a productive classroom.
“You can ask the teachers to do only so much. You can ask the children to do only so much,” Williams said. “It’s just not the best environment because now the teacher has to be the social worker, a teacher, a mom, a dad or whatever else they need so it’s not just focused on academics.”
Williams has changed the strategy of the way the Masterman Home and School Association approaches finding funding. She said she believes funding will have the most impact if it comes from partnerships with businesses. If the city is not going to do it, then businesses need to step in their place, Williams said.
“We are doing a lot of fundraising and the purpose of the fundraising is not to replace the cuts but we are trying to defer some of the impact on it,” she said.
However, Neff said the partnering businesses must realize it is not just a one year commitment.
“It’s a systemic problem that I think is larger than philanthropists coming up with money. We as a community here in Philadelphia and we as a state have to decide how big of a priority kids are,” Neff said.
A large concern of parents and teachers are the cuts to extracurricular programs which keep the children occupied after school. Williams said she believes boredom translates into trouble and this is a cycle that unfortunately happens often in an urban environment.
“Now we are going to have a problem with the police, then we are going to have a problem with the students who are being arrested, then they are going to have a problem trying to go through the college application process,” Williams said. “Can’t go to college, can’t get a job.”
In fact, the current budget cuts will make the process even tougher because school counselors are being added to the list. Many people believe these short-term cuts will create long-term issues and the regression of progress. Williams said she does not see how current cuts will benefit the city in the future.
Budget cuts and school closings seem to be the worst option, but Neff said she is not sure what the other option would be for the district. Neff said she believes the bottom line is that funding education is a long-term commitment.
“It is the function of the government, however, I think it is the responsibility of all of us—we are going to pay now or pay later,” Neff said.
Masterman will continue to try and live up to its high standards of quality education. The school is one of the top schools in Philadelphia with the student body surpassing PSSA standardized test score goals in every grade level and subject.
“I don’t know what the alternative is. I can’t say whether the district has made the right decision,” Neff said. “Someone else will be number one, we won’t be.”
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