On the eve of the first day of classes for Philadelphia public school students, around 200 protesters held a funeral outside Governor Tom Corbett’s Philadelphia office Sunday night. But it wasn’t for a person. Instead, the protesters say, it was for the death of the “hopes and dreams of public school students.”
The Philadelphia School District is trying to achieve more than $100 million in concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers as it works to close a $304 million deficit. That deficit resulted in nearly 4,000 layoffs of teachers, administrators, secretaries and counselors and the ending of arts programs and extracurricular activities.
In August, the old collective bargaining agreement expired. Since then, both the Philadelphia School District and the teachers’ union have tried to negotiate a new contract, but so far to no success.
When students return to classes on Monday, they’ll be met by staffs that are noticeably changed due to the teacher layoffs, especially in the arts, music and sports. Guidance counselors and assistant principals will also be gone. The layoffs also led to the closing of about two dozen schools, which means the students who attended those schools will have to go to new ones.
Many teachers and education leaders have blamed Governor Corbett for slashing funds, which is why they gathered outside of his office on 200 S. Broad Street around 6:30 p.m. on Sunday for a candlelight vigil and mock funeral. They then marched to city hall, carrying with them signs and a coffin.
“We put the responsibility where we think it belongs which is primarily on the governor and secondarily on our city’s elected leadership,” Ron Whitehorne, a former teacher said. “These are the folks who have the responsibility to fund our schools. There’s a lot of buck passing and avoidance and the schools are on life support.”
During the rally, several students also performed at a talent show to showcase a side of their creativity that the protesters say may not have an outlet in public schools due to the major cuts in arts, music, sports and other programs.
Governor Corbett has called for school reforms, many of which would likely involve changes to teachers pay and benefits. District officials say a five to 13 percent paycut is needed to rehire more laidoff teachers and assistant principals. District leaders also want reform that allows them to assign teachers regardless of seniority as well as longer school days. Many teachers say they’ve made enough sacrifices however.
“The governor and corporate reformers like Comcast’s David Cohen want the school district to save money by forcing teachers and staff to make salary and benefit concessions,” wrote the rally’s organizers in a press release. “But Philadelphia teachers are already paid 19 percent less than their counterparts in Bucks and Montgomery counties.”
As negotiations continue, some students say they fear returning to school on Monday.
"It doesn't only make me angry, it makes me sad at the same time," said Gian Carlos Rodriquez, a high school freshman. "I was bullied a lot and picked on and stuff. Now I think we only have one counselor in school. So in high school what if i get bullied again?"
"I don't know what's going to happen when I go in, what staff is going to be there to help me. It's like you don't know what you're getting into," said 16-year-old Deionni Martinez.
Rodriguez also has a message for Governor Corbett.
“We voted for you because we know you’re good,” Rodriguez said. “Now it’s like you’re turning your back on us. We need you to do your job and get the money from somewhere else.”