Parents: Besieged schools in dire need

Guillermo Santos a student at John Moffet Elementary School in Philadelphia, his mother activist Cheri Honkala at left and fellow students, residents, parents, and other supporters of public education were in City Council Chambers, Philadelphia for the public testimony on the funding of school in the city. This testimony is taking place all day, Tuesday, April 30, 2013. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Guillermo Santos a student at John Moffet Elementary School in Philadelphia, his mother activist Cheri Honkala at left and fellow students, residents, parents, and other supporters of public education were in City Council Chambers, Philadelphia for the public testimony on the funding of school in the city. This testimony is taking place all day, Tuesday, April 30, 2013. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Posted: May 02, 2013

Even assuming that the city comes up with another $60 million requested by the Philadelphia School District, the projected budget for the next school year will be a disaster for the city and its schoolchildren, a series of parents, teachers, civic groups and students told City Council on Tuesday.

"People are the backbone of our school," said Alison Stuart, a fifth-grade teacher at McCall School near Washington Square, who bicycled to City Hall after school to testify as the last of about 50 witnesses at a Council budget hearing.

"I felt compelled to come out for all the librarians, all the secretaries, all the band teachers, everybody who makes our community what it is," Stuart said, beginning to cry as she described the school nurse cleaning tables in the lunchroom.

"When I think about how many hats we already wear, without all those people, it's not a school anymore," Stuart said. "There is chaos. And I'm at a quote-unquote good school. You do wonder, who will this drive away? Not only quality teachers but also families. . . . They're going to go right back to the suburbs."

One speaker after another criticized Gov. Corbett and the Legislature for reducing state aid to basic education by nearly $1 billion in the last two years and diverting dollars to charter schools.

"It seems that in the last 10 years, our schools have been like a medieval village that has been encircled by an outside army, put under siege, and steadily starved of resources and support personnel until we have been weakened for a final assault," said Ken Derstine, who retired in 2011 after 37 years as a public schoolteacher, most recently at Meredith School in Queen Village.

Guillermo Santos, 10, a fourth grader at Moffett School, addressed Council surrounded by a dozen classmates and their parents, brandishing a two-sided sheet of proposed cuts at his school.

"The entire paper is filled with horror stories about what's going on," he said. "Autistic support, gone. Bilingual, gone. Secretary, gone. No more books. Kindergarten . . .. Take this money out of anything else. Wars. Prison."

Santos' mother, civic activist Cheri Honkala, said the proposed budget promises that "our children will be fast-tracked into prisons, drugs, unemployment. . .Everything should stop in this city until you find this money."

Robert F. Petrone, an assistant district attorney with three children at Meredith, called it "an emergency situation."

"Realistically, we cannot run our public schools on the current budget for the 2013-14 school year, where it allows only for a principal and teachers but no additional staff or supplies," Petrone said. "Imagine City Hall with just the mayor and the 17 members of City Council - no secretaries, no support staff, no aides of any kind. How well would you be able to serve the public under these conditions?"

Petrone described the school budget proposal - requiring $120 million in additional state aid beyond the $60 million requested from the city - as "a de facto closing of all Philadelphia public schools."

Witnesses were skeptical about Corbett and the Legislature responding positively to the School District's pleas.

"The state is unlikely to do their full part and even less likely to do anything if we are not willing to invest in our own students," said Carolyn Adams, board president of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Council members have put out several proposals to find more money for the schools, including an increase in the liquor-by-the-drink tax, from 10 percent to 15 percent; an increase in the business community's Use and Occupancy taxes, accounting for savings that many businesses will reap from the city's real estate reassessments; and reducing, from 10 years to five, the real estate tax exemption for new construction.

Council leaders met privately in the afternoon with Mayor Nutter to discuss budget issues but did not reach any major decisions, Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. said.


Contact Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

 

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