Uri MOnson

Philadelphia School District CFO Uri Monson speaks to a crowd from the Philadelphia Education Fund on the fiscal future of city schools. | Image: Philadelphia Education Fund Twitter page

Uri Monson walked down the stairs of his home one Saturday morning.

As chief financial officer for the cash-starved Philadelphia School District, this Saturday morning offered a rare moment out of the course of a long week to not have to think about work.

However as he arrived down the stairs his son was there to meet him with a copy of a newspaper. The headline read: Teachers, Philly schools reach tentative contract agreement.

Monson’s son looked at him and asked quizzically, “Dad, does this mean you’ll be home more now?”  

Ever since Monson signed on with the district in 2015, his primary initiative has been to agree to a teacher contract, particularly after four and a half years of a song and dance between the district and a restless union in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

“It was a distraction to everyone in the city,” Monson said in a recent sit-down with PW. “Within those four and a half years, those teachers weren’t eligible for raises or bonuses.”

The deliberations predated Monson’s time with the district. With the unrest that began in 2012, and ended ultimately, with Monson placing a deal in principle between the district and the PFT on June 16.

The contract allowed teachers to finally receive several lump sum payments and percentage bumps in salary. It is considered retroactive pay to make up for the lack of raises while working without a contract. The teachers will also have to contribute a small percentage of their salary toward their health coverage.

As for the child’s inquiry, Monson admits he has more free time since terms were agreed to. But headlines still swirl. The district is now in a $979 million deficit. Some believe a fiscal cliff approaches. The contract added around $270 million to the deficit according to Monson. School Reform Commission member Bill Green, the only member to vote against the teachers contract, said its contribution to the deficit could lead to personnel layoffs by 2019.

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym believes the issues with the district’s financial health would remain with or without the ratified contract.

“The state is purposefully starving Philadelphia public schools,” Gym said. “Bill Green is being disingenuous if he’s blaming the teachers contract for financial challenges. He hasn't secured any level of support or significant relief from Harrisburg even though he's a state representative.”

One recent study from the Education Law Center concludes that the state of Philadelphia ranks 46th out of 50 states in funding education. The report claims the state is “overly-reliant” on cities for education funding.  

“The situation is untenable without the teacher contract,” Gym continued. “The year before the contract was signed, we had hundreds of teachers vacancies. They were quitting and we couldn’t hire any back. It was impacting teachers’ lives.”

There are horror stories of course.

Last summer, 2,500 students in kindergarten through seventh grade were sent to summer school because they lacked a teacher for more than two-thirds of the year. Some high school students were forced into credit recovery programs just to fulfill requirements to graduate. Ismael Jimenez is a teacher at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and has seen the material impact of the fiscal deficit and the subsequent tightening belt.

“You receive a box of paper and supplies at the beginning of classes every year. Then that turned into a box of paper. Then it's now two reams of paper a month,” Jimenez said. “It's a slow bleed in the resources you receive. Teachers have to go out of their own way.”

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“The state is purposefully starving Philadelphia public schools. [Pa. State Rep. Bill Green is being disingenuous if he’s blaming the teachers contract for financial challenges. He hasn't secured any level of support or significant relief from Harrisburg even though he's a state representative.”

– City Councilwoman Helen Gym

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He said teacher morale has declined with the cuts. They had begun to expect less and less. Jimenez used to teach at Germantown High School, until it closed in 2013 and Jimenez was laid off.

“I have three children. I didn't know what I was going to do,” he said.

The School Reform Commission voted to enforce those layoffs. The five-member board was delegated to make decisions regarding the School District of Philadelphia in 2001, with three members proposed by the governor, and two by the mayor. 

Feather Houstoun hated making the hard cuts, calling them “excruciatingly painful.”

She had been put on the School Reform Commission in 2010 by Gov. Tom Corbett. She can still remember budget sessions with people screaming at her, tearful parents afraid that a school was about to close and outraged teachers who weren't going to get their benefits. 

“This is hard stuff,” Houstoun said. “We didn’t have enough money and we had to do stuff that wasn’t good for kids, teachers or families, but we had to do it.” 

Today, making cuts still is not off the board.

Monson didn’t beat around the bush on the idea of layoffs: “I'm not going to say we’re laying this many people off or cutting that, but there should be no question in anyone’s mind if push comes to shove we’ll do what we have to do.”

Some teachers feel the SRC is part of the school district’s financial problem and that control should be restored back to a city level. At a recent SRC meeting, members of the “Our City, Our Schools” organization called for the board to disband, citing Gov. Tom Wolf himself calling for the disbandment during his 2014 campaign and Mayor Jim Kenney emphasizing local control in his campaign in 2015.

“Every other school in Pennsylvania has an elected school board, said Jimenez. “Not having a school board that is accountable to the city is problematic to me. Something like a school closing [suddenly] becomes outside of anyone's control. Another aspect is nothing has improved since 2001. Things haven't improved after 16 years.”

“It’s in violation of their duties,” added Gym. “The No. 1 reason we didn’t have a teacher contract is [because] we've been taken over by the state for 16 years. It was forced upon us. It was a hijacking of the fifth-largest school system in the United States.”

But Houstoun doesn’t see the issue being the SRC, “We were all district people in the SRC. We were all Philadelphia citizens.  It’s not like we were an alien force. That’s just how a lot of people perceived it.”

Instead, the key to the district’s financial struggles in Houstoun’s eyes is by generating sustainable revenues.

One way? Improving its credibility.

Monson and other sources close to the District admitted its credit moving forward is an important component to its overall financial health.

“It’s the most important thing,” said Monson, the district’s steward of its money. “It’s a structural deficit so one-time money won’t help.”

However, there is one piece of good news that arrived from an unlikely place: Moody’s.

The credit rating agency recently upgraded the district’s revenue bonds credit rating for the first time since 2010. It cited the School District of Philadelphia’s “structural balance and operating surpluses” in its positive report. It’s a welcome sign for a district seeking for sustainable funds wherever it can get them.

All in an effort to prevent anymore cuts which at the end of the day come at the expense of the most important thing: the student body.

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