President of Teachers Union Joins School Hunger Strike as State Funding Deadline Looms

A group of Philadelphia School District parents remain camped outside Governor Tom Corbett's Center City office on a hunger strike. 

And today, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten tweeted her support and announced she has joined their efforts. 

Weingarten tweeted: "Fasting 2day in solidarity w/ hunger strikers confronting immoral evisceration of public ed in Philadelphia" 

Why a hunger strike? To protest the recent layoff notices and school cuts, which are scheduled to go into effect next school year. 

At the center of the debate is whether the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will give $120 million to the School District of Philadelphia.

The answer is going to come in the last hour on Sunday, June 30, according to Senator Vincent Hughes.

"We're trying to figure out a way to fund these schools and jobs so people can go to work," said Hughes. 

On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee approved the City of Philadelphia's request to add $2 tax to cigarette sales, a sign of progress amidst the debate. Approval is still needed by the Senate Appropriations Committee and Senate. 

The school district is in financial distress and trying to fill a $304 million gap in its 2014 fiscal year budget. The cash-strapped district has asked for $120 million from the state, $60 million from the city and $130 million in concessions from its unions. The City of Philadelphia came up with $74 million last week.

Hughes, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is confident that state lawmakers will come through, but only after holding out as long as possible. June 30 is the last day of the regular legislative session in Harrisburg. State lawmakers need to come through on two key funding sources before the session ends. They need to approve a move to raise the cigarette tax in Philadelphia by $2.00. That tax accounts for more than half of the $74 million that the City of Philadelphia has promised in its budget. Lawmakers also need to get their budget sealed before the fiscal year starts on July 1 and that would include however much money they plan to dedicate to Philly's public schools.

"Governor Corbett continues to work with lawmakers and city and school district officials to find a long-term solution to Philadelphia School District's fiscal situation," said Timothy Eller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

About 3,900 pink slips were handed out to employees of the School District of Philadelphia in recent weeks. "Many are making only $10-$11 an hour," said Hughes.

Parents of the 149,535 school children who attend Philadelphia public schools wait in limbo for details on what next school year will look like. Librarians, counselors, music, art and sports are among the activities that have been cut from the school district's proposed budget to compensate for the monetary shortfall. 

"Things are difficult. Where we should have figured out how to fund all distressed public schools," Hughes said.

"We are not there yet."

The Philadelphia School District isn't the only district in the state facing layoffs. In Allentown, 126 workers received layoff notices. In addition, all school personnel in York's schools are preparing for a 40 percent pay cut, according to Hughes. 

"The Governor is committed to ensuring that students have access to high-quality educational programs," said Eller.

Hughes' spokesman Ben Waxman said Hughes has been in constant conversations with the governor's staff and is hopeful something is going to get done. 

"At the end of the day, the Republicans control everything. This is their show," Waxman said. 

"I'll miss church but I'll be praying somewhere. That's the only way," Hughes said. 

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