Philly Students Walkout, Teachers Protest Severe Budget Cuts

Cuts would rid schools of staff, extracurriculars and music and art programs

Thousands of Philadelphia school students walked out of class and marched on city buildings to fight drastic budget cuts to their education.

Chanting "save our schools" and holding signs, the teens from at least 27 schools converged on the School District of Philadelphia headquarters at 440 N. Broad Street just after noon Friday, shutting down Broad Street to traffic.

Once the demonstrators reached numbers in the thousands, they began marching south on Broad Street towards Philadelphia City Hall at Broad and Market Streets -- arriving around 1:30 p.m.

The students are fighting a series of severe budget cuts proposed by the district to close a more than $300 million funding gap. The proposed cuts include ending arts and music programs, sports and cutting auxiliary staff like secretaries, librarians and counselors.

The demonstration is happening at the same time parents, teachers and students testify before a Philadelphia City Council hearing on school funding.

The demonstration walked around City Hall in the middle of the street -- shutting the area down to traffic. They also made their way into the building's courtyard to have their voices heard.

Some students held signs reading "No Schools = No Life," "What will you do about the opportunity gap?" and "Give us education, not incarceration."

— Philly Student Union (@215studentunion) May 17, 2013

After spending about a half hour at City Hall, the group poured back onto North Broad Street and began making their way to School District headquarters once again.

Philly Student Union, a youth-led organizer, reported there was not one incident reported during the "peaceful" protest.

Councilwomen Maria Sanchez and Blondell Reynolds Brown met the students in front of the district headquarters and joined in on the protest.

After nearly three hours, the students wrapped up the demonstration and began to disperse.

Earlier in the day, a few dozen teachers and school staff organized a protest outside the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts along South Broad Street.

Wearing signs and handing out pamphlets to drivers, members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers lined the sidewalk outside the high school at Broad and Christian Streets.

"With the austere budgets schools have received, schools...will not be able to provide a high-quality education for Philadelphia's children," said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Jordan says the teacher's union has been discussing labor concessions with the district. However, he says a concession that results teachers taking a pay cut is a non-starter.

"The school district is asking for salary cuts for all PFT members of anywhere between 5, 10 and 13-percent," he said. "I don't think that you'll find employee in the school district and the PFT...who are going to tell you that they can afford to take that kind of pay cut."

The School District of Philadelphia has asked the city and state for millions of extra dollars to close its $304 million budget gap for the upcoming school year.

City officials have said they're working to come up with the money, but a new budget has yet to be approved by City Council.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has proposed imposing so-called "sin taxes" to raise funds. Under Nutter's proposal, a $2 tax would be imposed on the sale of every pack of cigarettes in the city. A tax on bar tabs would also go up 5-percent to 15-percent.

Nutter is also vowing to collect taxes owed to the district. In all, the mayor believes these initiatives can inject $95 million in revenue into the cash-strapped district. That's tens of millions more than the $60 million requested from the city by the district.

The mayor's plans are not the only idea being floated to raise money for the district. Some council members debated a plan to raise the Use and Occupancy Tax paid by businesses.

Under the plan, the tax would be increased to negate a drop in business property taxes following the implementation of the new Actual Value Initiative. Council approved the tax increase in committee Friday opening it up for a vote in the full council.

The city must approve a school budget by the end of May and then the city's budget by June 30.

Similar walkouts were organized last week by students, who also marched on the same spots.

The protests come on the 59th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case -- in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for states to segregate public schools.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard says staff doesn't stop students from walking out, but says officials have asked principals remind students that leaving early will results in being marked as cutting.

"Schools will follow the district's attendance policy and will take the appropriate action which triggers at least a phone call to parents to notify them of the student's absence, a request for a parent conference at the school, or after school detention," he said.

Gallard says the type of response depends on the student's attendance history. He also says the district is working with police to protect students as they congregate.

Students are using Twitter to organize and document their protests. The Philly Student Union  promoted the hashtag #walkout215 as a digital rally point during the event.

The student's cause was also being supported by parents. Brett Mandel, who's running for Philadelphia City Controller, sent out a tweet saying he gave his daughter Rose permission to protest.

"Raise your voice, Rose! It may be the most educational part of the day," he wrote.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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