HARRISBURG, Pa.- Philadelphia schools learned Oct. 16 they will get an extra $45 million from the state as the district struggles with its worst financial crisis in memory and questions about a student’s death after an apparent asthma attack at a school without a nurse on site.
Gov. Tom Corbett announced the state aid to Pennsylvania’s largest school district at an unrelated news conference in his Capitol offices and did not take questions afterward. However, he said his decision came a day after a letter from the Philadelphia school superintendent, William Hite, convinced him that district officials had made enough progress toward the governor’s educational and financial goals for improvements in the 134,000-student district.
Corbett also said he and his wife sent their sympathies to the family of 12-year-old Laporshia Massey, although a spokesman for Corbett later said the release of the money and the girl’s death were not connected.
Still, Corbett’s acting education secretary, Carolyn Dumaresq, said Oct. 16 her department will review the circumstances of Massey’s death and will try to determine whether she had an inhaler with her the day she died and whether she was able to self-administer it. Dumaresq also said her department would review the district’s emergency plans and staffing, and correct any problems it finds.
Dumaresq said it is not unusual for a smaller public school to be without a nurse on site each day because the state requires that the caseload of school nurses must not exceed 1,500 students per nurse. Sometimes one nurse covers two buildings, Dumaresq said.
Because of the funding problems, the district cut its nursing staff district-wide two years ago; the smaller school that Massey attended had a nurse on duty two days a week.
Hite said Oct. 16 the money would allow the state-controlled district to restore sports and music for the full year and rehire about 400 people, including guidance counselors, assistant principals and teachers. However, he said he did not plan to rehire any nurses, as union officials and a parent’s organization urged, because the district has met the state’s caseload standard.
Holding six weeks of classes without the money has been “detrimental,” he said.
The district approved a budget of nearly $2.4 billion, and the extra money helps close the gap from the prior year’s nearly $2.7 billion budget.
The state Legislature had approved the money in July, although it gave the secretary of education the power to first demand improvements to fiscal stability, educational improvement and operational control.
Initially, Corbett, a Republican, had sought significant concessions from the teachers union, but Corbett’s budget secretary, Charles Zogby, said Hite’s letter summarizing steps taken, such as managing teacher assignments and closing schools, were satisfactory, even though negotiations with the teachers’ union continue without a contract.
Layoff notices that went out in June to nearly 4,000 employees wiped out 20 percent of the district’s employees. A pledge by Mayor Michael Nutter to borrow $50 million against future sales tax receipts prompted the rehiring of some laid-off staff and encouraged Hite to back off a threat not to open the schools Sept. 9.
Philadelphia officials had been harshly critical of the administration’s decision to withhold the money, and the death of Massey, a sixth-grader at Bryant Elementary, renewed an outcry over conditions in the district. A parents’ group, Parents United for Public Education, said the district’s lack of money is “dangerous and it is unsustainable. It has put children and families directly in harm’s way.”
Massey died Sept. 25 after initially reporting that she was unable to breathe at school, her father’s lawyer, Ronald S. Pollack, said. Some details remain unclear, but she did not come home from school with her inhaler, Pollack said. She died later at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he said.
School nurse Eileen Duffey, who was helping to organize an Oct. 17 vigil in Laporshia’s honor, said there’s no guarantee that Laporshia would be alive had there been a nurse in the building.
“But I do know that school nurses, such as myself, we are trained to assess children,” Duffey said.
Associated Press writer Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia contributed to this report. Matheson reported from Philadelphia.