Frustrated with Philly schools stalemate, parents join district workers in fast

 Unite Here! Fast for Safe Schools on the steps of the Philadelphia School District building. (Charlie Kaier/WHYY)

Unite Here! Fast for Safe Schools on the steps of the Philadelphia School District building. (Charlie Kaier/WHYY)

Marches, rallies, bus trips to Harrisburg.

Parents, students and staff haven’t kept quiet their concerns about the Philadelphia School District’s budget woes.

But with less than a month to go before the start of the school year, some are considering upping the ante with hopes of not just highlighting, but shining a spotlight on the need for adequate funding.

Earlene Bly, whose daughter is a rising sophomore at Roxborough High School, is thinking about homeschooling if the district can’t rehire school safety staffers, including cafeteria employees and noon-time aids.

“I don’t know if I want my child in the school system, in that school, knowing that she’s not safe,” Bly said.

The district laid off nearly 4,000 school employees this summer. About a thousand of them were student safety employees.

Bly joined hands with those workers, who organized a 12-hour fast—8 a.m. to 8 p.m.—on Wednesday on the steps of school district headquarters.

“I’m waiting to see if they’re going to give up the money. I’m waiting to see if they’re going to open the schools. I’m waiting to see if they’re going to bring back the people that they let go,” she said following a brief, midmorning rally.

More than 100 protesters staked out spots on North Broad Street, where tents and porta-potties were set up.

“A fast is more powerful than any other type of weapon that you can use to bring forth a good change—change that’s going to matter,” said Romona Mercer, who lost her job at Leeds Middle School in Mount Airy.She said students are being sent a “double message”—excel without being kept safe at school.

Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild is considering taking things beyond a hunger strike if the district doesn’t have adequate funding to open with necessary personnel in September.

The interfaith group of 40 member organizations across the city is exploring a schools boycott in which parents would keep their students home from school.

“What else can we do?” asked Rev. Mark Tyler, who leads Mother Bethel AME Church in Center City. “We’ve marched. We’ve protested. We’ve gone before the [School Reform Commission]. We’ve gone to Harrisburg. We’ve done everything that we can do.”

“You can call it civil disobedience if you will, but we believe that this something that we have to do,” he said.

While particulars of a boycott plan have yet to be hashed out, Tyler noted that he fully expects that churches will open their doors to any students parents decide to keep out of school.

School District Superintendent William Hite has said he may delay the start of the school year if at least $50 million in promised funding is not released by Friday.

The majority of that total—$45 million—is part of an aid package that Gov. Tom Corbett announced earlier in the summer.

The money was originally owed by Pennsylvania to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. That debt, however, has since been forgiven following discussions led by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.

Corbett, however, said this week that he won’t release the funds until he sees labor concessions, which include contract givebacks from teachers.

“A new collective bargaining agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that makes substantial progress toward achieving the fiscal savings and academic reforms set out by CEO Hite and the School Reform Commission must be in place before any new funding is released,” state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said in a letter issued Tuesday.

When the funding was announced, the Corbett adminstration said the money wouldn’t be sent to the district until the state secretary of education certifies that the school district is making sufficient progress on reforms in how it’s run, spends money and provides education.

State lawmakers maintain that the district has fulfilled that requirement.

The district has asked for $133 million worth of concessions. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is opposed to some of the changes the administration seeks.

This version of the story clarifies language about the status of contract negotiations between the Philadelphia School District and the teachers union, as well as about what reforms the Corbett Administration is demanding from the school system.

 

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