Philly School Crisis Meets Pushback

While a group of determined teachers, parents and community activists rallied a small crowd in front of South Philadelphia High School on a rainy weekday, the powers-that-be in City Hall, Harrisburg and D.C. did nothing to avert an educational crisis that awaits 150,000 mostly poor and working-class students when school is due to open in September.

The rally, on August 6th, culminated a canvassing effort in South Philly where members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers  (PFT) and their supporters went door-to-door to inform local residents of the “doomsday” budget  and decimated education and support staff that has further weakened an already beleaguered school system.

Some background:  The state of Pennsylvania took over the Philadelphia school board in 2002 giving birth to the School Reform Commission (SRC) composed of three members appointed by the governor and two by the mayor.   With the end of federal stimulus funds and a recent cutback of $274 million in state-wide educational aid, the school district was hit hard.  The district didn’t receive much help from the cash-strapped city serving a population with a poverty rate of 28.4%.  In the end, the SRC declared a shortfall of over $300 million in the education budget for the coming year.

Superintendant William Hite, hired by the SRC and a protégé of the charter-friendly Broad Foundation, determined that the shortfall could be covered if the state tossed in $120 million, the city $60 million, and the school district’s unionized workforce gave back $130 million in salary and benefits.   Without those additional funds, the SRC proclaimed that the 3,800 layoff notices they sent out in May to teachers, assistant principals, counselors, secretaries, school aides, music, art and sports staff, would be permanent.

There’s been pushback from the budget cuts and layoffs, much of it built upon earlier organizing to stop the SRC from closing some 40 neighborhood schools.  As a result of contentious local meetings, where the SRC was never able to make the case that the school closings would actually save money, the commission reduced the closings to 23.  But with many of the closings in relatively poor neighborhoods, the loss of a school means not only the end of a neighborhood resource, but economic losses for local businesses that have served students, parents and teachers for years.  Some also see the closings as a pretext to bring in more charter schools to the city, which already enroll about 50,000 students, at a cost to the school district of some $7,000 per student.

At the South Philly rally the speakers, many wearing red union t-shirts, reflected the racial and ethnic makeup of the area, and of the city for that matter, with African Americans making up over 44% of the population, Latinos 13% and non-Latino whites nearly 39%.   They spoke from notes and extemporaneously, criticizing the City Council,  Democratic Mayor Nutter, conservative Republican Governor Corbett and the SRC.  They worried about safety and chaos in the schools, without school nurses and lunchroom aides, and about the quality of education with bigger classes and no counselors.  There was plenty of anger at union busting and while the SRC asked for “family engagement,” one speaker spoke only of “parent enragement” at the layoffs and budget cuts.

After the rally I spoke with one of the speakers, Brian Kelley, a teacher with 12 years of experience at Edward W. Bok Technical High School.  The SRC closed Bok and Kelly will be teaching at South Philadelphia High School, and many of the Bok students will be attending South Philly High.  Kelley told me that 10 teachers and 14 support staff from Bok were among the nearly 4,000 from the whole district laid off.  He also said that the vocational services and programs that the SRC said would transfer to South Philly were not happening.  That was one promise that hasn’t been kept.  He worried that with the transfer of students due to the school closings, South Philly’s enrollment was due to double to nearly 1,300 students who would be served by only one secretary and one nurse.

School is due to open on September 9th and only a few hundred of the more than 3,800 employees laid off have been brought back as a bit more money from the state has come back to the district.  The contract for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, that represents 17 thousand teachers, librarians, nurses, counselors, and support staff, expires at the end of August and negotiations are still going on.  The first offer from the SRC, and the only one to be made public, demands salary cuts from 5 to 13%; cuts in health care coverage; an increase in the workday without additional compensation; and the end of seniority.  In an obvious union-busting proposal, the SRC asks for the right to give union work to non-union employees  –  in effect to subcontract out the work of teachers and professional support staff.  And, I’m not making this up, in a bizarre attempt to remind teachers who’s boss, the SRC refuses to guarantee classroom teachers a desk for themselves.

Time is running out but the organizing and protesting is accelerating.  The past year has already seen student school walkouts, Center City marches, and hunger strikes along with a huge amount of speaking out and lobbying.    The PFT is continuing its neighborhood canvassing and organizing; UNITE HERE, the union that represents school aides, has announced that it will continue its “Fast for Safe Schools,” a coalition of parents, students, workers and clergy, by August 14th if the aides aren’t recalled; and Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), composed of 17 labor and community organizations, is sponsoring a series of rallies and a huge march on August 22nd, a “day of action to save our schools.”

The first rally that day will be at Comcast corporate headquarters, demanding that corporations pay their fair share of taxes and criticizing the city for giving Comcast a ten year abatement on its new building. Then it’s on to City Hall with demands on the City Council and mayor to “take emergency action to fund the schools.”  The last stop is at the SRC meeting to “fight for funding instead of attacking teachers and school workers.”

At the South Philly rally, speakers didn’t mention the Federal government or the Obama administration.  Philadelphia taxpayers have paid more than $4 billion in taxes for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. A refund of less than 10% of that would solve Philly’s educational crisis. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed his concern over the Philadelphia budget shortfall, but hasn’t offered any aid.    Maybe if Philadelphia were a bank too big to fail, help would be on its way.



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