After a two-week holiday recess, court resumed Thursday in the school funding trial with the first two days of witness testimony in 2022.
Jane Harbert, former superintendent of William Penn School District, a petitioner in the lawsuit taking on legislative leaders and other state officials for their failure to adequately and fairly fund schools, took the stand for the entire day on Thursday and Friday. She retired in 2020 after 47 years in education.
Located just southwest of Philadelphia, the district serves more than 4,900 students in six suburban communities. William Penn does not have an affluent tax base. Residents are making immense efforts to support their students with local funds, paying the second highest tax rate in the entire state. But insufficient state funding leaves this low-wealth district short $4,836 per student from a state benchmark for adequate funding.
“It’s a balancing act,” Harbert said. “We have to continuously say, all right. What do our students need? What can we afford?”
As superintendent, Harbert had to make staff cuts and prioritized keeping teachers employed. William Penn had seven principals for eight elementary schools when she was superintendent. The district’s four elementary school guidance counselors, serving two schools each, are “primarily working in crisis mode,” she said.
Harbert wanted to provide one-on-one tutoring for 20-30 minutes daily to students in early grades with the greatest need for help in reading. But these interventions would have required between 30 and 35 reading specialists, and the district did not have the funds to implement this program. Today, William Penn has no reading specialists.
Harbert told of students and teachers making extraordinary efforts in attempts to access opportunities that other schools take for granted. For example, a group of four senior football players wanted to play a home game under lights on Friday night before they graduated. So, Harbert said, they secured a discount to rent construction floodlights to illuminate their unlit field and planned for the event, passing out flyers before the game in the neighborhood of the field, which had never hosted an evening event before. The response was tremendous; according to Harbert, it was something like a “grand opening.”
If William Penn obtains sufficient funds, Harbert said, “we’re going to open the door for [our students] to so many more opportunities … in their career, at colleges, and in their personal life.”
Next Monday, William Penn’s current superintendent, Dr. Eric Becoats, will take the stand, to be followed by witnesses from the School District of Philadelphia, including Superintendent William Hite, and by education scholar Pedro Noguera.
“We’re going to open the door for them to so many more opportunities … in their career, at colleges, and in their personal life.” – Former William Penn School District superintendent Jane Harbert on what sufficient school funding would mean for students.
Our daily summaries and blog posts:
- ‘It’s A Balancing Act’: Former William Penn Superintendent On Navigating Scarcity, Jan. 7 (Friday)
- ‘It Is Our Responsibility As Adults To Make Sure Students Have The Resources:’ Former William Penn SD Supt. Begins Her Testimony Jan. 6 (Thursday)
- In Pennsylvania, A Lawsuit Could Make Historic Changes To School Funding — Forbes, December 23, 2021
- Former William Penn superintendent testifies in historic school funding trial: ‘I know we don’t have enough’ — Philadelphia Inquirer, January 6, 2022
- Guest Editorial: Lawsuit has serious ramifications – The Sentinel, December 27, 2021
- Splain: Rural schools need more funding – The Bradford Era, December 24, 2021