At Council hearing, parents, students plead for more money for schools

Signs are held during School District budget hearings before City Council. "I am not sure the best ways to fund our schools," one parent said. "That's why we elected you. And right now, you are failing us."
Signs are held during School District budget hearings before City Council. "I am not sure the best ways to fund our schools," one parent said. "That's why we elected you. And right now, you are failing us." (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 09, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Adam Bachmann is George Washington High School's only counselor, one adult responsible for the emotional needs and college hopes of 1,800 students.

On Wednesday, he took to City Council an urgent message: Fund Philadelphia public schools.

"A lot of lives have been lost because of the budget, and we haven't seen the worst of it yet," said Bachmann, referring to students who he said will not attend college this year because of a lack of adult guidance.

Continuing Council's hearing on the Philadelphia School District budget, dozens of students, parents, and teachers trooped to the microphone and sounded similar pleas.

The district is asking for $216 million just to maintain current service levels - $195 million from the city alone. Without that money, it would have to increase class sizes to up to 41 and lay off 1,000 employees, district officials said.

Advocates pushed Council to approve a sales-tax extension that would yield $120 million for the school system. They also pleaded with the city to find money on top of that sum.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said state cuts have put the district in its current straits.

But, Cooper said, "we are now faced with the tough local decision of whether we permit the School District to disintegrate, and dash the hopes and dreams of our children."

Parent Kathleen O'Neill said it was up to Council to figure out a way to come up with the needed money.

"I am not sure, the best ways to fund our schools," O'Neill said. "That's why we elected you. And right now, you are failing us."

Council heard plaintive pleas from people on the ground.

"Schools have very little resources and equipment," said Angela Beqiri, a seventh grader at Adaire Elementary in Fishtown. "My class didn't have textbooks for math."

"You make it seem like our students, our parents, are not a priority in Philadelphia," said Mary Sandra Dean, principal of West Philadelphia High.

Bachmann, the George Washington counselor, was raised in a Philadelphia housing project and lived in the city until recently. When he tells his suburban neighbors where he works, he said, they seem disdainful of the students he works with.

But "the funding is dysfunctional and dangerous," Bachmann said. "The kids are not."

Parents and students talked about shortages of basic supplies, such as paper. They talked about one kindergarten room where there is no rug for circle time, because there was no money to replace one that got ruined. They talked about students missing out of college because of a lack of counselors.

One parent said that come September, she was sending her daughter out of state and homeschooling her son to avoid the problems wreaked by budget cuts.

Tina Diaz, a graduate of the system and parent of children enrolled in its schools, said she and her husband remain in Philadelphia because they care about the city. Until now, she said, the pros have outweighed the cons.

But the budget cuts - and the nightmare scenario dangling over parents' heads for next year - make her wonder whether that has changed. When other city residents ask whether they should send their children to public schools, she's not sure what to say anymore, Diaz said.

"I don't want to mislead them," she said. "We're at the breaking point."

Terrilyn McCormick, whose children attend Penn Alexander and the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, said Council was in a tough spot.

It's being held hostage by the district, she said, "with a gun being pointed directly at our children."

Council members reiterated that they were likely to come up with more funding torward the district's $2.8 billion budget, but gave no indication of where the money might come from.

They acknowledged it was a stark situation when students have to come asking for funds.

One little boy, dressed in a crisp button-down shirt, said that his school, Wister Elementary, had problems. The bathroom was dirty and he doesn't like to use it, he said.

"And we need more recess, and we need more educational supplies," the boy said.

Councilman Curtis Jones nodded at him seriously.

"We need to fix that," Jones said.


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

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