Protesters force retreat on plan to dismantle Philly public schools

PHILADELPHIA – A robust coalition of parent, community, student and labor groups brought their message to the city School Reform Commission May 31 and received extensive media coverage of their efforts. Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside School District headquarters and then filled the SRC meeting to overflowing while the commission attempted to conduct the business of voting on a “bare bones” budget for next year.

Facing a deficit of over $200 million, the district leaders say they are looking for ways to balance the budget without cutting classroom programs and teaching staff any more than they already have over the last two years. The cuts threatened for next year involve primarily support staff and services.

The demonstrators were not persuaded. The large pre-meeting rally outside district headquarters heard speakers from school employee unions and the AFL-CIO, as well as from parent and community groups. Jerry Mondesire of the Philadelphia NAACP told the crowd, “Our allies are every union in this district. This privatization has got to stop. This will not be the last time we have to come out here, and we’re in this all the way.”

James Whitehead of SEIU Local 32BJ said he had received a layoff notice after 29 years with the school district. He called on the school district to “do what is right for the children, the teachers, and the taxpayers of Philadelphia.” SEIU represents bus drivers, building engineers and maintenance workers. All 2,700 of its members have received layoff notices. 

Liz McElroy, political director of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, noted that Samuel Gompers, more, than 100 years ago, had placed as one of labor’s first priorities “more schools and less jails,” and that the AFL-CIO would be in this struggle for another 100 years if necessary. She said, “Politicians need to sort out their priorities and put kids first and corporations and the rich somewhere near the bottom.”

Robert McGrogan, president of the union of school administrators (CASA) which is also Local 502 of the Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters, said organized labor is being wrongly blamed for causing the funding crisis and decisions are being made that are not in the best interests of the children. He thanked the unions involved in the struggle as well as the community organizations and parents that came out.

Inside the packed meeting room, chants of “Save our schools” and “We say fight back” repeatedly interrupted the proceedings. The crowd, which included a significant number of students, cheered several of the speakers. Helen Gym, a long-time activist and public school parent took the microphone to tell the SRC that years of broken promises were driving the anger of many public school advocates. Addressing CEO Thomas Knudsen, primary author of the plan to contract out large sections of the district, she said, “You call these cuts painful; they are not painful; they’re shameful.” The Rev. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church told the commission members, “We don’t trust what you say is true.” 

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan recalled in his testimony that, over the last two years of deep state budget cuts, the district has already lost 1,500 teaching jobs and 360 counselors as well as school nurses, counselors, sports programs and art and music programs. Instead of leadership, he said, the community heard only “deafening silence” from the SRC. “Our children cannot wait until the economy improves to get an education,” Jordan said. “They need safe schools and great programs now!”

The five-member SRC finally managed to pass the budget on a unanimous vote, but was forced to shelve its proposal to dismantle the district at least until 2013 and to scrap a pilot project scheduled for this fall. SRC member Lorene Carey, for instance, stated that her vote was only on the budget and not on any plan for the district’s future. The commission has been hearing the vigorous protests of community members at regional meetings during the past month, and the outpouring of opposition could have come as no surprise.

This most recent crisis has brought the issue of years of inadequate school funding before the public with an urgency not seen in the past.

The state takeover of more than a decade ago generated forceful protests, but the current proposals from the SRC are being met with a level of unity among parents, teachers and other school workers, students and community and religious organizations that is unprecedented.

Ron Whitehorne, a retired teacher and an organizer of the Philly Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), said in an email after the meeting, “For the first time in ten years a broad labor-community coalition came together and mounted a militant challenge to the corporate school reform agenda in Philadelphia. We have put the SRC on the defensive and changed the conversation about the crisis in education.”

There is also a growing realization that the budget crisis is not limited to Philadelphia. Helen Gym, the community activist and parent who spoke in the meeting, told the crowd outside earlier, “This is not just a Philadelphia problem or a Pennsylvania problem; this is a national problem. Ten years ago we heard these same promises.”

Photo: PFT President Jerry Jordan addresses the crowd. Ben Sears/PW




Ben Sears
Ben Sears

Ben Sears is a retired teacher and AFT member in Philadelphia. He is the author, as John Bennett Sears, of the book "The Electrical Unions and the Cold War" (International Publishers 2019).