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Profile: William Hite

Philadelphia’s superintendent leads his district through a budget crisis—and makes plans for the future.

In a time when cash-strapped districts and budgetary crises are the norm, the situation in Philadelphia seemed especially dire.

Just how bad was it? Even after closing 24 schools in June, cutting operating costs, and making reductions in central administration, the district still faced a $304 million shortfall to maintain current operations. In August, Superintendent William Hite warned that schools might not open on time due to lack of funding.

Hite crafted a budget for this school year based solely on what the 131,000-student district could afford. His goal: to become fiscally stable and therefore sustainable."I made a commitment to only spend moneys that we knew we had," says Hite. "So this year's budget was developed based on money we were assured, and as we get additional revenue we'll add back programs and supports."

As a result, some 4,000 employees were laid off. Schools would be without athletics, music, counselors, secretaries, and assistant principals. There wasn't even money for trash pickup.

Open for Business
With the addition of some last-­minute revenue, including $50 million from the city of Philadelphia, schools opened their doors to students on time this fall. The funding helped restore a portion of the eliminated services, but the district's 212 schools were operating with a skeleton crew. "Everyone feels challenged in terms of doing multiple things, but you can't tell that when you walk into the classrooms and teachers are working with children," Hite says. "You still see groups of students who are being taught by groups of professionals."

Good news came in mid-October when Governor Tom Corbett released $45 million to the struggling district—citing a letter from Hite that detailed the district's progress, financial goals, and more lenient seniority rules. Corbett previously planned to hold the funds until the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers made concessions.

"We would have liked to have had [the funds] earlier, but we're thrilled they're coming now," Hite said at a press conference after getting the news. "This does not return us to where we were a year ago. There's a significant amount of revenue available in labor savings that we still must talk about," he said, referring to ongoing negotiations with the PFT for compensation and benefit concessions that could save the district more than $100 million.

For now, the $45 million will help Hite rehire some 400 sorely needed administrators, teachers, counselors, and aides. Another $30 million could come from the state by year's end.

Problem Solving
Hite was hired last fall after Arlene Ackerman departed in 2011. During the 2012 fiscal year, the district faced a $721 million budgetary deficit. "We knew there were going to be some significant financial challenges," says Wendell Pritchett, a member of the School Reform Commission, which governs the district. "We were looking for someone who had significant management experience and had experience making difficult choices."

After Hite was hired, he worked with the commission's financial plan and made it his own. Of the $180 million the district ideally hoped to gain in new government support, he was able to secure $150 million. "I was shocked we were able to get that much," Pritchett says. "That's pretty strong evidence that people are willing to invest in the superintendent."

In addition to city and state funding, Hite has tapped into the Philadelphia community for support, including businesses, philanthropic organizations, and higher education institutions that can help students with college placement.

Innovating for the Future
Despite the district's challenges, which also include losing students to charters, low test scores, and high dropout rates, Hite has a positive outlook about the future. "We don't plan to live in this economic situation forever," he says.

Hite says that innovation is key to growth. He cites two project-based, district-run schools as examples of such innovation—Sustainability Workshop and Science Leadership Academy (SLA).

Chris Lehmann, principal of SLA, says that Hite has been a champion of his school. "He understands what it means to be an educator. He tries to honor that despite the obviously unbelievable challenges that he inherited," Lehmann says.

Hite wants to give more students access to schools like SLA. "We need to have a structure on the other side of this that allows us mechanisms to be accountable," he says, "mechanisms that will motivate our students and provide the type of outcomes we want to see and ultimately increase our high school graduation rate and college-going rate."

For now, Hite says that the budget woes have become "incredible distractions" at a time when the district should be focusing on goals such as implementing the Common Core and giving all children access to prekindergarten.  

"I'm looking forward to a time when we don't have to have conversations about school closures or layoffs or program reductions or eliminations," he says. "I'm looking forward to a time when we can really begin talking in earnest about high-quality instruction and terrific school leadership." 

 

Late Fall 2013— 

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