Protesters Go on Hunger Strike for Philly Schools

Parents and school employees are taking drastic measures to help save the jobs of thousands in the Philadelphia School District.

“I’m doing this fast because it’s important to me,” said Patricia Norris. “And I love the children and I want the children to be safe.”

Norris is one of the four parents and school aides who say they will go day and night without food to protest the closure of 23 schools and firing of 3,783 School District employees.

The district, the eighth largest in the United States, sent thousands of layoff notices on June 7. The district is eliminating all assistant principals, secretaries and guidance counselors. Nearly 700 teachers and more than 1,200 aides also got pink slips. The laid off employees won’t be back in September unless politicians can figure out how to fill a $304 million budget gap.

The parents and school aides who initiated the hunger strike say they believe Philadelphia’s children won’t be safe next year without the aides and workers. They camped outside of Governor Tom Corbett’s office in Philadelphia to make sure their message was heard loud and clear.

“We need the student safety staff there to protect our children,” said Earline Bly, who is also participating in the hunger strike. “They keep the violence down to a minimum.”

Betty Garner of the Middle Years Alternative School in West Philadelphia, is one of the aides who was laid off.

“We basically run the place,” she said. “I know the kids, I know the parents and I know the siblings before them.”

Affectionately called “Miss Betty” by the students, Garner has worked at the school for 10 years, making sure the kids were safe at lunch, the playground and when they got on the school bus. This week, one of her jobs was to lock up all of the school instruments. They won’t be used next year.

District Superintendent Dr. William Hite says a $304 million budget shortfall led to the “draconian” cuts. In addition to the layoffs, schools will be cutting art and sports programs and extra-curriculars.

Dr. Hite has asked the city and state to kick in cash and unions to make concessions to stave off the changes. He has said should the money come through, the layoffs would be reversed. However, with budgets due by the end of June, the outlook does not look good.

Philadelphia City Council approved a tax on cigarette sales Thursday to raise $45 million for schools, but the tax can’t be levied until the state legislature gives the OK. So far, they have not.

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