By Gloria C. Endres
First of all, I want to thank columnist Tom Cardella for honoring me with a mention in his column on the financial crisis going on in our public schools (Last Chance Inn, March 14). Secondly, I want to thank editor Bill Gelman for giving me this opportunity to respond.
This issue of chronic underfunding of the Philadelphia School District has been discussed and dissected by many over the years. Solutions offered range from more local taxes to cuts in pensions for new teachers, who would also be expected to double as janitors and pest exterminators (when they are not acting as security guards).
First, let me be clear that poor funding is not just a Philadelphia issue but a statewide problem. That is why there is a landmark lawsuit pending against the Commonwealth on behalf of all 501 districts to correct the recently passed unbalanced funding formula which replaced no formula at all. Depending on courts to solve the problem could take forever, but at least the suit is in progress.
We must also look at other causes of this doomsday crisis and see which of them can be fixed. We have, first of all, the worst charter school law in the nation. Philadelphia has 83 charter schools, which is like a school district within the district. The way the quirky law is written, for example, a charter school can accept a student who needs minimal special help, like occasional speech therapy, but then demand more than the district would spend on the same student. The difference can be spent elsewhere. Taxpayers need to demand that their legislators fix this. Of course the charter school lobby will fight back.
Tom quotes five suggestions by Philly Mag columnist Ernest Owens to avoid increasing our property taxes. If we compare his suggestions with those of my friend, Daily News columnist Stu Bykovsky, we can make a Venn diagram of where they agree. Both suggest downsizing the city payroll; eliminating or reducing the tax abatement; and collecting taxes from deadbeats. Byko does not mention DROP but he does demand that the Philadelphia Parking Authority keep its word to fund schools. He also quotes former mayoral candidate Sam Katz, who suggests an overhaul of public sector pensions, which have been shortchanged by city and state for decades to enable tax cuts — a whole other story.
As I said before, teachers have always borne the brunt of budget cuts and especially in the School District of Philadelphia. They have had to put up with an undisciplined and unaccountable School Reform Commission that tried to balance its budget on their backs by canceling their contract, not giving them raises for five years, telling them to buy their own school supplies and clean their own classrooms. It has been one disruption after another as staff was cut, class sizes increased and simple building maintenance curtailed. I was an eyewitness, during my time as a Temple student teacher supervisor, of vermin and mold in a public school. I once squashed a roach myself. I saw an assistant give an inhaler to a student with asthma (probably exacerbated by the mold) because there was no nurse. Staff also are required to contribute to their health-care costs and retirement funds. Now they are being asked by our president to become first responders in case of an attack by a terrorist or mass shooter. I am glad I am retired.
Bottom line, Pennsylvania has one of the largest spending gaps between affluent and poor districts in the country. Fixed costs like health benefits, pensions, mandatory special education and goofy charter school expenses all must be paid first. The City of Philadelphia can certainly improve its management of expenses and collection of taxes to help alleviate the budget situation, but it cannot do so alone. The Commonwealth must do its compulsory and long neglected part. Now that the SRC is gone, we have a chance to make the new school board directly accountable to us and to manage the school budget wisely. We must continue to demand that our representatives amend those things that unfairly burden our resources — like the charter school law and the unbalanced funding formula. It is the least they can do.