PHILADELPHIA - The crowd included students, parents, teachers, counselors, librarians, school nurses, classroom aides, union members and students from Philadelphia and from Baltimore and Boston who had come in support.
The rain and the thunder did not stop them.
They came to deliver a message to the School Reform Commission (SRC), the mayor and governor: "Restore funding for Philadelphia schools!"
Before reaching school district headquarters on north Broad Street, the large crowd of demonstrators had gathered at the Comcast downtown corporate headquarters a few blocks away.
The march started there to highlight their claim that Comcast, in its recently completed corporate skyscraper, is not paying its fair share of taxes and is a major player in causing the schools' funding shortfall.
At the rally, speakers representing the wide range of groups and organizations participating praised the marchers for the high level of unity and determination that the developing coalition had achieved as the school's crisis intensifies.
With the opening of school less than three weeks away, the situation in the district continues to be confused and unclear. Although a few have been recalled, over 3,000 school employees including nurses, counselors, teachers and support staff are still facing layoffs.
City and state officials have engaged in a complex game of political maneuvering in attempts to patch together a plan to fill part of the $270 million gap in the 2013-2014 budget.
The city's schools have been under state control since 2001. It is widely recognized that Pennsylvania Governor Corbett's deep budget cuts over the previous three years are a major cause of the crisis, but Philadelphia Mayor Nutter is not escaping the anger of school activists.
Dave Morgan, vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) told the crowd that he wanted to "report a robbery; Governor Corbett and other officials have stolen our children's education." He continued, " In this crowd I see the people of Philadelphia, but I don't see a government that cares about them. When you cut $1 billion from the education budget to build more prisons, we know what message you are sending us. We are not going to stop until the funding is restored and the schools are back in the hands of the people."
Speaker after speaker echoed Morgan's words. The message was, as Philadelphia student and member of Youth United For Change (YUC) Krista Rivers said, "We don't just want band aid funds; we have come together to get decent learning conditions for students and decent working conditions for teachers."
Pat Eiding, head of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO said, "We need public schools that are for working people's children; I remember a time when we were proud of our school system; the state came in here and messed it up. They are trying to destroy collective bargaining, but it's not going to happen."
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) President Jerry Jordan said he had one question for the SRC: "What about the children?" He went on to cite the staff members the children would have to do without under the SRC's current plans. "The nurses are there to take care of the children. And every counselor who was working in June has to be brought back. A child does not decide what day of the week to have a crisis. We will not be a party to cheating Philadelphia's children. We need services and programs as good as the ones I had when I was a student at West Philadelphia High School."
Last week, the SRC voted to suspend portions of the state school code in order to open schools without the required number of staff. For example, the district plans to staff schools with nurses who are licensed, but are not certified as school nurses. The teachers' union contract expires at the end of August.
Jordan earlier told the press that the SRC was negotiating in bad faith, "by seeking to suspend work rules even as we talk everyday at the bargaining table and seeking to subject school employees to the bad old days of staffing decisions based on patronage and favoritism."
Rally organizers announced plans for further actions in the coming days, including delivering petitions to City Council and a youth vigil outside the governor's office on Broad Street. The governor has said he would not agree to a proposed partial funding plan unless the PFT accepted major concessions in their new contract.
Photo: Ben Sears/PW