Head of national teachers union joins City Hall protest over Philly school funds

A few dozen activists were so upset about the Philadelphia School District’s budget crisis that they interrupted City Council’s first meeting of the fall.

The advocacy group Fight for Philly and the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, an alliance of parents, students and teachers, stormed into Council’s chambers Thursday, waving signs and demanding more money for the school district.

“Fund our schools!” they chanted. “Fund our schools!” 

The protesters stalled the meeting for about five minutes before leaving at Council’s request. 

The school district has made drastic cuts this year to plug a $304 million budget gap. Classes began this week with 3,000 fewer guidance counselors, assistant principals, librarians, teachers and other employees.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, traveled from Washington, D.C., to join the rowdy protest. She said Gov. Tom Corbett can help stop the pain by releasing a $45 million grant that has been set aside for the city schools.

“Gov. Corbett is sitting on that money,” she said. “Instead of giving it to the city of Philadelphia right now, he is holding that money hostage.”

But Corbett has said that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers must agree to a “reform” contract before the state will provide the additional funding. He wants major financial givebacks and work-rule changes.

Weingarten had hoped to visit Northeast Philly’s Abraham Lincoln High School to get a close look at how budget cuts are affecting classes, but that didn’t happen.

School district spokesman Fernando Gallard said Lincoln’s principal “politely declined” because he thought that a high-profile visit at the end of the school day would be disruptive. He said Weingarten was invited to tour the school after class was dismissed.

Weingarten said the district is not being open and transparent.

“They just don’t want us to see what’s going on in schools,” she said. “If you don’t have extracurricular activities, if you don’t have AP subjects, if you don’t have guidance counselors, if you don’t have nurses, if you have one secretary in a school, and you have class sizes of 60 kids, that’s not a good school year for kids.”

According to the AFT, this was the first time in 27 years that Weingarten was not allowed into a public school while it was in session.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.