Philadelphia City Council, along with Mayor Jim Kenney, the Philadelphia School Board, and School District Superintendent William Hite, met on Nov. 19, 2019, to hold a mandated public meeting on the operation of the school district.
In his opening remarks, Kenney highlighted the allocation of $1.2 billion in general fund contributions that will be distributed over the next 5 years, which represents more than $700 million in new contributions.
“With the additional funding from the City, the district’s financial outlook is stronger, enabling the board to vote last month to authorize borrowing $500 million for more capital improvements to our school buildings,” Kenney said.
Kenney said proper funding was the only to ensure that the school district was effective.
“We are still a very poor city, and the only way out of poverty is education,” Kenney said.
Hite said the school district was in the midst of a transformation years in the making.
“In seven years, we’ve transformed from a state of financial crisis, school closings, massive layoffs, and key areas including operations, minimal capital investments to buildings we know on average more than 70 years old and in dire need of repair,” Hite said.
Hite said the school district has transformed that set of circumstances and made steady progress, including in the area of academic achievement, as evidenced by increasing the number of high performing schools, including seven Blue Ribbon Schools.
“We have made strategic investments to begin restoring critical staff levels, staffing levels, [adding] 1,700 teachers, counselors, behavioral health staff, and nurses,” Hite said.
According to Hite, the school district has also invested nearly $400 million to renovate and modernize building infrastructure in the last five years, including $39 million to Dobbins High School.
“We fully stabilized lead paint in 32 elementary schools and certified another 13 as lead safe,” Hite said. “[The school district] will certify another 26 schools by the end of the year.”
Hite was quick to say, however, the improvements the district has made are not enough.
“We have made some major mistakes and have fallen short on my expectations in key areas and have not fully confronted many of the challenges we have faced,” Hite said. “The students, the staffs, families, and our Philadelphia community deserve better.”
One of the major challenges facing the district is the average age of the district’s 300 buildings is 70 years old, and the funds needed for preventive maintenance have not been invested in the last 15 years.
“We have $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance costs,” Hite said. “A tight labor and contractor market and the strong economy in Philadelphia has in some cases limited our ability to recruit skill painters, electricians, plumbers, steamfitters, and other key trades.”
Hite said between 2012 and 2018, the school district has budgeted below $100 million per year for capital improvements, but it budgeted $406 million in 2019.
Councilmember Helen Gym said the school district had to rebuild public trust through better communication.
Councilmember Derek Green said many people have lost faith in the school district due to a lack of communication regarding issues such as lead and asbestos.
“I think it’s unfortunate because there, I know, there’s good things happen in school district,” Green said. “Without that comfort and that belief in the district, we’re going to have some major problems going forward.”
Lawrence McGlynn is a recent graduate of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where he earned a Master’s in Journalism. For the next several months he will be reporting out of City Hall on various council and committee meetings, the city’s budget, and how these impact the daily lives of Philadelphians.
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