In Wake of Child’s Death, Funding Demands Grow for Philadelphia Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — May 23, 2014 10 min read
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Staff Writer Benjamin Herold contributed reporting from Philadelphia.

More than 50 students, teachers, and activists rallied at the Philadelphia City Hall and outside of the office of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett on Thursday afternoon to call for more funding for the city’s schools.

The rally was part of a day of protests and mourning in the city where parents and residents are facing the prospect of additional brutal school budget cuts and are trying to make sense of the death of a 7-year-old 1st grader, who became ill at Andrew Jackson Elementary School on Wednesday afternoon and was later pronounced dead at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia around 4 p.m.

“It’s really a sad day for the city,” Shanee Garner, the co-director for education policy for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said in an interview Thursday. “No conversation about funding can take place without acknowledging that we have lost a second student this year.”

The child’s death ignited new outrage in a community that has been lobbying desperately for more money for the district, which has projected a $216 million shortfall in the upcoming year’s $2.49 billion operating budget and has forecasted hundreds of layoffs—including nurses, school police, and teachers—and cuts to special education and transportation without additional financial aid.

In all, schools Superintendent William R. Hite had been asking the City Council, the state legislature, Gov. Tom Corbett, and the unions for $440 million in new funds and savings—an amount sufficient to bridge the $216 million deficit and allow the schools to add literacy programs, extracurricular activities, more Advanced Placement classes, and counselors.

The district is asking for an additional $75 million from the city, $150 million from the state, $95 million from labor concessions, and $120 million from an extension of the 1 percent sales tax to reach the $440 million goal.

The child’s death, at Andrew Jackson Elementary School, where there was no nurse on duty at the time, sparked new concerns about the possible deadly consequences of years of accumulated steep budget cuts and was a sobering reminder of the death of another Philadelphia public school student, Laporshia Massey, a 12-year-old Bryant Elementary School student, who died last September after suffering an asthma attack at school. That school also did not have a nurse on duty when the child became sick during the school day.

Philadelphia is not the only school district to reduce the number of nurses when confronted with budget constraints. Strained school finances and shifting spending priorities have led to an overall decline in school nurses nationally in recent years, student health organizations have said. And school nurses today cover larger numbers of students and work with more unlicensed peers than they did in the past, survey data show.

In a 2013 survey of nearly 7,000 school nurses by the National Association of School Nurses, 21.7 percent of respondents reported that they covered several buildings and thus trained unlicensed coworkers to perform daily routines. And 16.2 percent of respondents said school nurse jobs in their areas had been threatened to be cut. Nearly 6 percent of nurses surveyed said other nurses in their district had been cut.

Of the nurses surveyed, 48 percent met or exceeded the national recommendations of one school nurse for every 750 students. In 2011, 43 percent met or exceeded that standard.

Advocates used the tragic event to calls on Gov. Corbett to change the way Philadelphia’s School District—and other state schools—are funded.

But the frustration was not only directed at the Republican governor, who is running for re-election: On Twitter and in comments on news sites, some initially called out the city council, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and William Greene, the chairman of the five-member School Reform Commission that oversees the school district.

Late Thursday, Hite released a statement expressing sympathy on the death of the child, whose name and cause of death have not been made public.

Hite said the student was surrounded by “loving and caring people, including a school counselor, teacher, support staff and community volunteer,” who worked with emergency officials to comfort and provide medical assistance to the student.

He, too, drew a connection between the death and the district’s financial distress, saying the incident shows the “serious needs and challenges that our students, teachers, staff and principals face every day.”

“During times of tragedy, our community should not have to question whether an extra staff member or program would have made a difference,” he said. “We should all feel confident that our schools have everything they need.

“This school year has been tremendously challenging on several fronts. Our pleas for sustainable funding are based on obvious needs. We urge our funders to provide the school district with the $440 million needed to adequately serve our schools. We cannot afford one more year of inadequately funded schools.”

The principal of Andrew Jackson Elementary School told the Philadelphia Daily News that the boy passed out and lost consciousness during a trip to the bathroom while accompanied by a classroom assistant. A counselor dialed 911, and a certified nurse, who had been volunteering at the school at the time, helped to administer CPR to the boy, the principal Lisa Ciarianca-Kaplan told the paper.

“The student had a regular school day until he fell ill,” said Fernando Gallard, the spokesman for the district. “There was nothing that occurred or any sign of any medical concern of any type ... from the child before the medical emergency occurred.”

The school does not have a full-time nurse on duty, but one visits the school every Thursday and every other Friday, Gallard said.

Gallard said that district officials were seeing to the immediate needs of students and faculty, but that a review of the incident would be conducted.

Seizing on the tragedy, the American Federation of Teachers President Randy Weingarten, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, and Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers President Ted Kirsch sent an open letter to the governor, calling on him to fairly fund all of the state’s schools.

Philadelphia’s funding woes have been blamed in part on Corbett’s nearly $1 billion statewide cuts to education in 2011, which coincided with the end of federal economic-stimulus funds.

According to the letter, the number of school nurses in the district is now down to 179, from 289, leaving school nurses responsible for up to six schools; some visit a school every other week.

“We don’t know if a school nurse could have saved this young boy,” the union presidents wrote in the May 22 letter.” But we do know every child deserves a full-time nurse in his or her school. We do know all parents deserve to know that their child will be safe and his or her most basic needs will be tended to at school. We do know that all Philadelphia children deserve better.”

“Mr. Governor, we cannot tolerate one more life lost, one more dream snatched from our children. You have the power to fix what you have broken. Restore full and fair funding to all Pennsylvania schools. And do it now.”

Timothy Eller, a spokesman for the Governor, did not return a call for comment on Thursday. In the past, however, the governor’s office has staunchly defended Corbett’s record on education.

The budget he has proposed for the fiscal year, beginning July 1, contained a $397.5 million increase in funding for public schools, and Philadelphia was also slated to receive $29 million in new funds through a new “Ready to Learn” grant program.

Earlier this month, Eller told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Corbett had increased “the state’s support of public schools by $501.7 million in 2011-12,” disputing an account by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center that argued that Corbett’s funding cuts had harmed the state’s schools, particularly those in low-income areas.

And when the school district budget was first announced, Jay Pagni, another spokesman for the governor, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that while the state’s taxpayers continued to help the district, it was “past time the City Council and union do the same.”

But the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which Pagni singled out by name, has shot back that it was the state’s constitutional duty—not the union’s—to fund the schools. The PFT and the school district are still negotiating, and teachers have been working for three years without a contract.

Gallard, the district spokesman, said the district has until June 30 to notify teachers that they would not return to the district, if the funds do not come through.

The Philadelphia City Council has also defended against the characterization that it was not doing enough to support the school system. Internal memos showed that the City has increased funding to the school district since the 2011-2012 school year.

Since then it has taken further action to help fix the financial crisis in response to the district’s pleas. Last week, the City Council introduced a measure that would extend the city’s extra 1 percent sales tax provision and guarantee the district the first $120 million in revenues raised next year. In subsequent years, the revenue would be split between the city’s school system and pension fund, with an even 50-50 split between the district and the pension fund by 2018.

But that plan was criticized as “reckless” by some as it would have required state approval. The measure the state approved last year called for the city to give all of the revenues earned from the sales tax extension to the school district in perpetuity.

The legislation introduced last week required the state lawmakers to revisit the proposal. The amended proposal now includes a provision that would allow the district to receive all the funds in perpetuity if the General Assembly takes no action, as many suspect will be the case. In that case, the district would continue to receive $120 million per year from the sales tax revenue—a critical safeguard for those who worried that the local spat might jeopardize the entire pot of money.

A hearing on the new bill is expected in early June.

The city is also hoping that the state would approve the $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes, which would generate $83 million in revenues for the school district this year.

“I believe this legislation assures the school district that in 2015 there will be $120 million [in new sales tax revenue], as their budget already assumes,” said Mark McDonald, the press secretary for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. “Secondarily, it empowers political leaders in Philadelphia and the city’s legislative delegation in Harrisburg to make the argument that we have done what you provided for. A large deficit remains, so help us help ourselves by passing the cigarette tax.”

Throughout the day Thursday, pleas for additional funds were coupled with recognition of the child’s death.

It began early Thursday morning, with dozens of parents, teachers, and community members gathering on the steps of Jackson Elementary School to recognize the tragedy and ask the state and City Council to commit to funding the schools.

“But, who will be there next time?,” read part of a statement by Friends of Jackson. “What if this school had a full-time nurse? What if this school had a full-time counselor? Could they save the next child’s life? We should not have to ask these questions any longer. The children in the school behind us don’t know enough to ask these questions yet. They don’t understand that their school is underfunded—that they are denied the basic resources that other children and communities take for granted.”

At the late day afternoon rally organized by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, protested had specific demands: That city provide an additional $195 million in recurring revenue to the Philadelphia School District, and that the state restore a recently cut mechanism for reimbursing districts for charter school expenses and allow the city to implement the $2 per pack cigarette tax to help fund education.

Funding for schools this year, said Sandy Tang, a junior at the city’s Central High School, “is not even close to meeting our needs.”

“We have teachers and staff doing the work of five or six different people,” said Tang.

Additional reporting by Evie Blad.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.