The buzz of excitement was palpable in and around our schools this morning. The first day brings friends back together after long summers to trade stories and share in their back-to school bounty. They meet their teachers and learn the responsibilities and expectations that come with being one grade higher.
And while many things will remain constant about the first day of school, today Philadelphia public schools opened in no better financial health than they were last year and with a looming threat of more cuts to come. WePAC volunteers who worked in our schools this past year saw the unprecedented conditions that students and teachers operating under, a state of affairs brought on by budget cuts that eliminated counselors, nurses, police officers, and classroom aids. While it’s hard to imagine that schools could function with even less, there is no guarantee that the district won’t have to survive even more cutbacks.
The school district’s future rests on the cigarette tax bill—legislation that, if passed, could provide as much as $80 million dollars for the city’s schools in its first year. But as a result of state lawmakers’ decision to leave the cigarette tax in limbo this summer, Superintendent Hite had to make significant cuts in order to ensure that schools could open on time. Among the staffing cuts, many noontime aides and special education classroom assistants saw their positions disappear while approximately 27 elementary schools will see their safety officers’ positions reduced to part-time. In addition, schools’ buildings will be cleaned and repaired less frequently.
There have been two small victories, however. A proposal that would have resulted in 7500 students losing free transportation to school was defeated by a parent advocacy group and the district recently announced that it would provide free breakfast and lunch for all students.
But until Harrisburg makes its final decision on the cigarette tax – which it is scheduled to do as early as mid-September – no one knows what schools will really look like by October. Failure to pass the bill could result in 1300 layoffs, including teachers, and an increase in class sizes to up to 41 students. While this would be catastrophic, it’s difficult to call the potential success of the bill a victory. The law is only expected to provide enough funding for schools to continue operating as they have been.
As teachers and students face another year without the resources they need to teach and learn, it is increasingly important that organizations like WePAC stay in schools to support them during this turbulent time. We are determined not to remain on the sidelines in Philadelphia’s fight for public education and we are incredibly grateful for all of our volunteers working on the ground to support our city’s children.