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May 18, 2024 5:59 pm

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Philadelphia school officials face budget questions

City Councilmembers questioned Superintendent Tony Watlington and others about ongoing facilities issues, teacher vacancies, resources for unhoused students, and more as they begin to shape the city’s budget for public education. (Credit: The School District of Philadelphia)

Carly Sitrin, Chalkbeat Philadelphia

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s free newsletter to keep up with the city’s public school system.

Philadelphia City Councilmembers on Tuesday questioned Superintendent Tony Watlington and his staff about ongoing facilities issues, teacher vacancies, resources for unhoused students, and more as they begin to shape the city’s budget for public education.

The district and school board have already held several meetings and votes on their $4.5 billion budget, but Tuesday’s hearing was the first time councilmembers could publicly interrogate Watlington, Board of Education President Reginald Streater, and other district staff. The city’s budget process is ongoing and no vote was taken at Tuesday’s hearing.

Over several hours, councilmembers pressed the district to present a comprehensive facilities plan, do more to keep students safe from gun violence, and fill teacher vacancies among other issues.

Philadelphia’s school district only controls some 10% of their budget, with the remaining 90% divided up in union contracts and under the control of city and state leaders – that means the Council’s relationship with Watlington is critical. Whether councilmembers trust his leadership and financial decisions can drive their budget decisions.

Tuesday’s hearing also comes on the heels of controversial political maneuvering this week that secured Mayor Cherelle Parker’s school board nominee, Joyce Wilkerson, over the heads of council leadership.

Parker delivered an impassioned speech at the start of the hearing, urging councilmembers to look past the school board nomination drama and work with her.

“I didn’t usurp a process,” Parker said. “I respect this institution, I respect the body.”

But she added her administration’s agenda could just as easily be “torpedoed” by Council President Kenyatta Johnson’s leadership.

“I can’t do it without you. And you can’t do it without me,” Parker said. “I don’t want to fight. I want to get things done.”

Here are some takeaways from the hearing:

‘We can’t just let kids disappear’

To start the hearing, Watlington provided a similar presentation to ones he’s delivered on multiple occasions to the school board, and in his “State of Public Education” address. The highlights are: Yearly revenue is falling behind expenditures, student achievement is making some limited progress, the number of students dropping out has fallen since last year, and Watlington is continuing to follow his strategic plan.

However, councilmembers and Watlington agreed, the district is not where they want it to be academically.

“Scores are still too low,” Watlington said.

Watlington said he intends to “shine a big, bright, spotlight on our dropout problem.” He said he’s added an assistant superintendent to his team who will focus on dropout prevention to “find every single kid’s record,” and hold face-to-face meetings with them and their families.

“We can’t just let kids disappear,” Watlington said.

Facilities concerns are ongoing

Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, chair of the education committee, led the line of questioning on the condition of school facilities.

“I think the most severe catastrophe that we’ve seen are the issues related to our facilities,” Thomas said. Several schools have closed in the district over the past year due to damaged asbestos and other environmental hazards. Watlington said Tuesday only 47% of schools in the district have adequate air conditioning.

Thomas and Johnson, the council president, pressed Watlington to produce a facilities plan for the district sooner rather than later.

Watlington said his office has been working to produce a comprehensive facilities plan, but that plan has been delayed. He previously estimated that renovating and modernizing the school district’s infrastructure, whose buildings on average are 73 years old, would cost nearly $8 billion.

Watlington told Thomas “we intend to move quickly,” but stopped short of laying out a timeline for when that plan would be produced.

According to Watlington’s opening presentation, the district is currently compiling a “data warehouse” on their facilities conditions and plan to launch a facilities plan “project team” starting this December.

Recruiting teachers remains a ‘struggle’

Councilmember Kendra Brooks asked Watlington about competitive salaries for teachers, paraprofessionals, custodial staff, and other school employees.

Watlington said he is “confident” the district has the resources to meet the district’s hiring demands, but he did not give data on the vacancy rate in the district.

“I would not have come to work as superintendent if I thought I was going to walk into a place that was going to implode,” Watlington said.

Still, he cautioned “we are going to continue to struggle” recruiting teachers in Philadelphia as the country battles an ongoing teacher shortage.

Councilmember Nicolas O’Rourke asked what Watlington has heard in exit interviews the district has conducted when teachers leave their positions in the city. Watlington said the primary reasons teachers leave are low pay, a lack of support at the school level, and some struggles with classroom management.

Year-round school will start slowly

Councilmember Cindy Bass asked Watlington about ongoing plans for year-round school — one of Parker’s mayoral promises.

Watlington said for now, year-round-school will mostly resemble “beefed up” out-of-school opportunities and summer programming, but in the 2025-26 school year, the district will be piloting longer days and an extended academic year in some select schools.

Watlington would welcome forensic audit

During the six-hour hearing, councilmembers also asked about selective school admissions, improving communication between the district and public, and other issues.

Johnson asked if Watlington would “welcome” a forensic audit of the district, and Watlington said he would. Johnson also expressed an interest in involving more faith-based organizations in schools to help with students facing trauma due to gun violence.

On the district’s new $70 million curriculum package that launched this school year, 83% of teachers reported in a recent survey that they felt they are “equipped to deliver” it, Watlington said. But he also said that many teachers didn’t feel they had enough time with the new materials before the school year started. For the English Language Arts curriculum rollout scheduled for next academic year, the district is starting training now to prepare teachers. Training will also be offered in the summer, he said.

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.