Philadelphians March To Save Public Schools

Above photo via Occupy Philadelphia.

Anger over the Philadelphia School District’s funding crisis spilled Thursday from the streets of Center City to district headquarters, where the School Reform Commission held its last scheduled meeting before the start of classes next month.

In midafternoon, more than 1,000 protesters, many in red T-shirts and carrying signs and banners, marched from the Comcast Center at 17th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard to the district’s offices on North Broad Street. Later, at the meeting inside, parents, students, and teachers told the SRC that they were alarmed by the financial problems and concerned about whether schools could open safely and educate students with fewer staff.

Community activist Orlando Acosta said he was urging parents to keep their children home when school begins. “Don’t send your kids to school until they get more funds,” he said.

Although the commission voted without comment to accept a donation of $228,000 from the Home and School Association of Science Leadership Academy to hire back two full-time teachers, several speakers said they were worried that the gift could start a trend that could widen inequities among district schools.

Joan Taylor, a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, said that while she wished she could applaud the hardworking parents at SLA – a sought-after magnet high school – for raising nearly a quarter of a million dollars, she could not. “They are taking care of their own children, buying two teachers for their school,” Taylor said. She said the parents’ action was well intended but cautioned that it could make it harder for schools that did not have the ability to raise such funds. “Now that SLA has made itself independent of the allotted budget, doesn’t that set up an expectation for other schools to do the same?” she asked, adding that since “SLA has, in effect, created its own gated community within the School District, can we now expect to see more schools and neighborhoods that are prosperous do the same?”

Other speakers lamented the shortage of counselors and aides. Two parents from Powell School in Powelton Village said that they feared the loss of staff as the school absorbed students from a shuttered school and that the district’s plan to combine some second- and third-grade classrooms would shortchange children’s learning opportunities and undermine one of the district’s top elementary schools. “You are destroying a high-performing school,” warned Robin Dominick, the president of Powell’s Home and School Association.

The commission also voted to make some changes to the district’s code of student conduct and strengthen anti-bullying and harassment policies. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said: “Our intentions with these policies is to communicate to all students, parents, families, and staff that the School District does not tolerate bullying or harassment of students in our schools.” He said the newly revised policies would provide clear guidance to help students report problems and detail how schools should respond appropriately.

The commission also approved facilities agreements with three charter operators that previously were approved to convert five low-performing district schools into Renaissance charter schools. Under the agreements, the operators will pay the district monthly costs to use the buildings and cover maintenance expenses.

Earlier, during the afternoon rally, participants sought to make the point that businesses should pay higher taxes to support the schools. Standing outside the Comcast Center, Brian Marr, 54, a middle school teacher, said: “Look at that building. I wonder what kind of tax breaks they got.” (Comcast spokesman John Demming said that although the Comcast building, owned by a separate company, received a 10-year property tax abatement, “in 2012 Comcast paid over $354 million of state and local taxes and fees to Pennsylvania and its localities, including over $70 million in Philadelphia.”)

Escorted by police, the marchers made their way around City Hall and up Broad Street, chanting, “You say cutbacks, we say fight back.” At the back of the crowd, Jelani Taylor, 5, who is about to enter kindergarten, struggled to keep up with his mother, Liz, a history teacher at Masterman School. “Why are we marching?” she asked her son. “School funding!” he answered.

Students, teachers, and labor leaders addressed the crowd outside the district’s offices, decrying the budget cuts. “We have one thing to say to the people inside,” said Ted Kirsch, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Pennsylvania chapter. “Shame on you.”

The agreement reached last week under which the city will borrow $50 million to allow the schools to open on time in September will not do enough to restore critical staff, supplies, and programming, said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “We still have almost 3,500 people laid off,” Jordan said. “It is a disgrace that the SRC, the governor, and the mayor are allowing this to happen.”

Several speakers remarked that the weather underscored their mission. Dark clouds descended on the Comcast Center, thunder drumrolled while the marchers reached City Hall, and rain poured down as they turned onto Broad Street, and when they reached the School District offices, the sky cleared. “We’re going through a storm right now, but we’re going to come out on the other side,” one woman shouted. “Sunshine always follows the rain.”