Unions, parents blast school austerity plans

Councilman Jim Kenney asks a question during Tuesday's session. He was concerned about tax burdens.
Councilman Jim Kenney asks a question during Tuesday's session. He was concerned about tax burdens. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 11, 2012

A coalition led by parent groups and Philadelphia school employee unions Wednesday blasted the district’s proposal to make drastic cuts and structural changes to balance its budget, saying they were shortsighted financial decisions that would ultimately hurt students.

“Nowhere does it speak about improving the education of youngsters,” said Delores Solomon, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council. “It’s a business plan.”

The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, lamented that the School Reform Commission proposed a restructuring that could include closing 40 low-performing schools and shifting more students to charters without first seeking public input.

“Yet, somehow, at the end of this process, it’s supposed to empower the community that was left out,” Tyler said. “We’re absolutely committed to making sure the community has a voice and vote.”

SRC members have said they are committed to incorporating the public’s voice into their budget plan, which is to be voted on by the end of the month.

The SRC, which is trying to cover a $218 million shortfall in the coming academic year, also is figuring on $156 million in savings from the district’s five unions over the next five years.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he had not been approached before the SRC announced its proposal last month. The union approved a one-year contract extension in October that allowed 15,000 teachers and support staff to receive scheduled 3 percent pay raises in January.

The union did agree to forgo a district payment of $30 million to its health and welfare fund. After layoffs in December, Jordan signaled an unwillingness to make more concessions.

“We’re prepared to sit there and negotiate our contract that expires Aug. 31, 2013, in the future,” he said. The SRC is empowered by the state to terminate collective-bargaining agreements and lay off workers without regard to seniority. It has never used the power to cancel contracts.

Jordan said the union had not taken a position on Mayor Nutter’s plan to raise $94 million for the schools through a property reassessment known as the Actual Value Initiative (AVI), and none of the coalition members suggested how the SRC should fix the district’s dire financial situation.

Jordan did point fingers at Harrisburg and Gov. Corbett, who last year cut $1 billion from education budgets statewide.

“You can’t continue to underfund public schools and expect good outcomes,” he said. “We can’t allow Harrisburg to go without any responsibility.”

The unions and other groups organized their opposition under the banner of the Philly Coalition Advocating for Public Schools. Their denunciations came on the day when City Council solicited public comment on the School District budget — an invitation that brought several hours of testimony, much of it along the lines of the coalition’s objections.

Trepidation over the district’s restructuring plans was coupled with scattered pleas for Council to pass the Actual Value Initiative and deliver the extra money to the schools. In recent weeks, Council members have been expressing doubts not only about AVI, but about delivering extra funding to a state-run school system that does not answer to city government.

Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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