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Philadelphia schools crippled by budget crisis

October 3, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
Philadelphia’s public school system is suffering a severe budget crisis, leaving classrooms packed, faculty understaffed and the district in debt. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters examines what led to the shortage of funds and what lawmakers are doing to fix it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a tough time to be a student, a teacher or a parent in the Philadelphia public schools. The nation’s eighth largest school system is experiencing a severe budget crisis.

Special correspondent for education John Tulenko of Learning Matters looks at the impact hitting the classroom and what’s being done about it.

JOHN TULENKO: Last month, about 1,000 ninth graders marched to the football field at Northeast High School for a very different kind of kickoff ceremony.

WOMAN: We are doing a mock graduation. It’s an opportunity for our incoming ninth grade class to make a commitment. We want to put the urge in them that they promise they are going to be right back here in June 2018.

JOHN TULENKO: But hanging over this ceremony and the odds students will graduate is a school budget crisis that’s been called the worst in the country. Northeast has 3,000 students and two principals, Sharon McColskey and Linda Carroll.

SHARON MCCOLSKEY, Northeast High: In past years, operating budgets were probably 10 times what ours is right now, if not more.

Just the thought of opening the schools with what we have in the bank, real or in our budget, was really scary.

LINDA CARROLL, Northeast High: You know, we’re hoping that money will be coming, but I don’t know. We don’t have enough to even carry us through the end of this month, actually.

JOHN TULENKO: Since 2011, when the cutting began, Northeast High School’s budget for extracurricular activities has dropped to zero, its budget for books zero, and for supplies to $14,000. That’s roughly $5 per student to last the entire year.

What is that supposed to pay for?

SHARON MCCOLSKEY: Everything that makes the school run, books, supplies, toner, ink, paper.

LINDA CARROLL: Lab equipment, textbooks.


LINDA CARROLL: Technology.

JOHN TULENKO: So, how do you pay for all that stuff?

LINDA CARROLL: You don’t. You don’t have it. You don’t have it. This is what we’re saying. We can’t because there’s no money to pay for it.

JOHN TULENKO: Across the district, it’s not just paper, textbooks and toner that have been cut.

Jessica Ramos is principal at Stern Elementary.

What have you lost in the school?

JESSICA RAMOS, Stearne Elementary: We have lost a full-time nurse. We used to have two counselors. We now have a point-five.  that means the counselor is for two-and-a-half days.

JOHN TULENKO: For how many students?

JESSICA RAMOS: For 578 today.

JOHN TULENKO: That means Ms. Ramos has to wear two hats, school principal and counselor, and on some days even more.

You have to fill in for the nurse?

JESSICA RAMOS: I’m the nurse on Mondays, on Wednesdays, and on Fridays.

JOHN TULENKO: Do you have any medical training?

JESSICA RAMOS: I have no medical training, but I am the nurse three days a week.

JOHN TULENKO: What can’t you do because you’re doing these other jobs?

JESSICA RAMOS: So, what I can’t do is, I can’t get into classes to help teachers really develop their effectiveness. And that’s the heart of this job.

JOHN TULENKO: The story of how Ms. Ramos and other arrived at this point begins in 2009, when the district was whipsawed by a great recession, which created a $120 million budget shortfall, followed by a windfall.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re making the largest investment in education in our nation’s history.


JOHN TULENKO: Half-a-billion dollars in federal stimulus money.

MARK KUPERBERG, Economist: We interviewed some administrators. And, you know, they felt for the first time they were able to do the things they always wanted to do.

JOHN TULENKO: To economist Mark Kuperberg, who has chronicled the district’s financial straits, that sudden infusion of federal dollars set the stage for an even greater crisis.

MARK KUPERBERG: They hired teachers. They lowered class size. They put in all — you know, various programs. From their perspective, everything was temporarily pretty good. But it was a little bit Wile E. Coyote moment. Once the stimulus disappeared, they looked down, and there’s nothing but air.

JOHN TULENKO: Short $300 million, Philadelphia schools were blindsided by what happened next.

GOV. TOM CORBETT, (R) Pennsylvania: I will dedicate the next four years to fiscal discipline and a responsible, limit government.

JOHN TULENKO: In 2011, a new governor, Tom Corbett, a conservative Republican faced with his own state budget deficit, refused to make up for the loss stimulus money, and in fact cut hundreds of millions in education funds statewide. The Philadelphia School District slashed its work force by 17 percent and borrowed some $400 million.

MARK KUPERBERG: You can’t use one-time money for ongoing expenses. It’s fraught with danger, because if you use that money to finance ongoing expenditures, once that money is gone, you still have the ongoing expenditures, but there’s no longer a pot of gold to fund it.

JOHN TULENKO: Has this district borrowed irresponsibly?

WILLIAM HITE, Superintendent, Philadelphia Schools: Oh, no question, no question about it.

JOHN TULENKO: William Hite, Philadelphia’s current superintendent of schools, took over in 2012 and continued to cut expenses, closing some two dozen schools and eliminating some 5,000 jobs.

WILLIAM HITE: You cut some of the assistant principals, some of the counselors, some of the individuals who are in the cafeteria or in hallways. And we try to make those cuts first as far away from schools as possible, but our largest group of employees are individuals who are working in schools.

JOHN TULENKO: Schools like Northeast High School, which in the last three years has been forced to let go of 12 teachers. The result? Larger class sizes overall, between 35 and 40 students, and in some cases more. This is ninth grade biology, packed wall to wall with 62 students.

I have never seen a class like this before. So how do you get a seat?

STUDENT: I have to find like a stairwell that will lead to this class fast. And, like, it kind of gets hard, because there’s, like, over, like, 3,000 kids in this school.

JOHN TULENKO: I want to know, how does this make you feel?

STUDENT: It makes me feel annoyed. It slows down the class and what we can learn. And it makes it harder to pay attention when you can’t even get a desk to sit in.

JOHN TULENKO: Nicole Evans is the teacher.

It looks hard.

NICOLE EVANS, Northeast High: It is. It is. I tried to do a lab with them, and it was extremely difficult because there’s so many of them wanted help and they were not sure of what to do. And you can’t give your attention to 30 pair of students.

JOHN TULENKO: Despite all the cutbacks, Philadelphia still faces an $81 million budget shortfall, a deficit for which the district is often blamed.

MARK KUPERBERG: What you hear is, it’s Philadelphia’s problem. They spend too much money. They have a strong teachers union. The teachers’ salaries are too high. They need to get their act together. That’s the problem.

What we concluded is, on the expenditure side, they’re not out of line at all. In fact, they’re low. It’s the revenue side. We have a state that’s relatively miserly in terms of the amount of money it gives to any of the school districts. It’s like the ninth lowest state.

JOHN TULENKO: Recently, after 11 months of wrangling, state lawmakers passed a cigarette tax they expect will close the gap and stave off another round of layoffs this fall. But it restores none of the cuts at schools like Northeast High.