PHILADELPHIA - The mood was boisterous and upbeat as some 2,000 demonstrators massed outside School District headquarters here, March 7, in an attempt to stop the threatened closing of nearly 30 public schools.
The diverse crowd included parent activists; high school, elementary and middle school students; teachers and school support personnel; and community activists. They chanted "Save our Schools!" and "Fix don't close schools! Some played drums and led cheers for their schools; and they heard speakers including parents, teachers and union leaders.
The mood was also tense, as the demonstrators knew how much was at stake. Inside the building, the five-member School Reform Commission (SRC) heard testimony from many speakers. Then, ignoring the pleas and the passion of most who went to the microphone, they voted to shutter 23 schools at the close of the present term in June. While the commission voted to spare four of the 27 threatened schools, a giant relief for the advocates from those four, the overall result of the meeting brought anger and disappointment for most of the demonstrators.
In an attempt to prevent the vote and shut down the meeting at the outset, 19 people blocked the entrance to the hall and were arrested. They included Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers and Jed Dodd, president of Pennsylvania Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees.
John Vago, a retired public worker, who was AFSCME chief steward in the city's water department, and one of those arrested, told peoplesworld.org they were released later that night after being held in a room at the school district building.
Earlier at the outside rally, Weingarten told the crowd, "Public education is at risk because of the actions of the SRC. They are saying that public schools will close and charters will stay open. When Wall Street does well and kids don't, is that acceptable? Tonight people across the country are watching what happens in Philly."
She said there was an alternative plan, put together by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools to improve public education in the city and that the SRC should be considering that plan instead of closing schools.
Parent Antoine Little, wearing his AFSCME t-shirt, took the microphone and said he had joined School District Superintendent William Hite to walk the route that his son would have to take to get to his new school. Hite had admitted that the walk was "extreme for children."
It later turned out Little's school, T.M. Pierce Elementary, was one of the four that would remain open.
PCAPS has emerged as a broad coalition of organizations bringing together school employee unions with parent, student and community groups. The coalition's members spent weeks mobilizing for the March 7 action and had demanded a one-year moratorium on all school closings to allow time for further consideration. PCAP's alternative plan includes proposals for the district's funding needs. The long-standing under-funding of the district has been exacerbated by sharp budget cuts over the past two years by the state legislature and Republican Governor Tom Corbett. The district had to borrow $300 million to pay its bills for the remainder of this school year.
The PCAPS coalition has tapped into a deep vein of resentment among many in the city who have heard the refrain of "no more money for education" for years, while banks continue to get interest payments and wealthy foundations help the district hire expensive outside consultants to develop plans to "fix" the schools.
In an interview, Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and activist, said the response of city leaders to calls for funding seems to show their priorities. She recalled that when a leading Philadelphia medical school was faced with having to sell off a large iconic Thomas Eakins painting to an out-of-state collector, prominent city leaders got busy and raised $60 million in a week.
"Aren't our kids worth that kind of effort?" she asked.
The proliferation of charter schools since the state assumed control of the district over a decade ago has also spurred suspicion. Roughly one-quarter of the city's nearly 250,000 school-age youngsters now attend charter schools. Public school advocates charge charter schools drain students and money from the district. While charters are nominally public schools and must be approved by the SRC, they are exempt from many state regulations and have operated with looser and less consistent oversight than regular public schools. Now that some public schools have seen enrollment decline in the face of competition from charters, and the district threatens to respond by closing them, many say that this was the intended result all along.
This year is also the final year of the contract covering 15,000 teachers and support personnel. The SRC last week presented the Philadelphia teachers' union, AFT Local 3, with a list of steep give back demands that includes pay cuts of 5 to 13 per cent, longer work days, and the removal of the cap on class size, currently 33 in most grades.
In the interest of "flexibility" and "professionalism" the district calls for an end to guaranteeing teachers adequate textbooks or guaranteeing counselors enclosed office space to meet with students.
PFT President Jerry Jordan told the press, "The only reason things like that are in the contract is because they've been a problem. For too many years we've heard from the administration that if it's not in the contract, they don't have to do it."
While the demonstrators wanted a better outcome, they said they were determined to continue the fight. Vago said, "The SRC has declared war on the people of Philadelphia, and they have not heard the end of this."
Photo: (PW/Ben Sears)