Website Lets Students, Parents Complain About School Cuts

Education advocates plan to track the complaints to ensure the state investigates the claims

Parents, students and teachers affected by extreme budget cuts in Philadelphia public schools now have a direct line to the woman in charge of the Commonwealth education system.

Education advocates and Philadelphia City Councilmembers Bill Green and Maria Quinones-Sanchez have launched the website to allow citizens to file complaints about how the recent multi-million dollar budget cuts are hurting the education of the city’s children.

"We are continuing to visit schools and communicate through our networks, but we thought it was important to have multiple venues to make it easy for parents and others to document their concerns and exercise their right to file complaints with the state," said Helen Gym of Parent’s United for Public Education.

The School District of Philadelphia was set to start the school year with a $304 million budget deficit and nearly 4,000 less staff than the year before. Superintendent Dr. William Hite threatened to delay the opening of school if some of the staff were not re-hired. Emergency funding was eventually authorized by the city to bring back around 1,000 staff.

However, a large deficit still remains and the state is refusing to release an additional $45 million in funding until the teachers union makes more than $100 million in contract concessions. As the budget fight continues, schools continue to deal with bigger classes, a lack of staff like guidance counselors and secretaries and cuts to programs.

Using the state’s constitution as a guiding force, the site’s creators are imploring anyone experiencing negative effects of the cuts to lodge official complaints.

The Pa. State Constitution requires officials to provide a "thorough and efficient system of public education" and clearly outlines how complaints about deficiencies in the education system must be investigated.

"If a senior in high school can't get her transcripts in a timely way to apply to college and this is because we don't have full-time guidance counselors allotted…then we can't wait around until the Spring to wait and see what the state is going to do," Gym said. "We need immediate relief for these situations."

Using an online form, people are asked to outline any alleged deficiencies in a school, like a lack of instruction, lack of staff or the closure of a facility. Contact, student and school information and a digital signature are required to file a complaint. The information is then sent to the state’s Acting Secretary of Education Caroline Dumaresq and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

"We are filing each one and will have a team of volunteers tracking the complaints and making sure people were responded to in a timely manner," Gym said.

The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia will track the complaints and follow up with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to ensure people receive responses.

Since its launch yesterday, more than 70 people have filed their issues through the website, according to Gym.

Tim Eller, press secretary for the Pa. Department of Education, says officials will review any complaints they receive.

"The state is confident that the district's administration is ensuring that programs and services required by state and federal laws and regulations are being provided to students," he said.

Eller added the best way for more funding to be directed to the district for the long-term will be by the union making concessions and city council extending the 1-percent sales tax hike.

Asked whether collecting these complaints was part of preparation to file a lawsuit over providing a fair education, Michael Churchill with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia said right now there are no plans for legal action.

Gym says, while she’s not a fan of lawsuits, advocates are prepared to take any action.

"We want resolution, not courts, but we are prepared to do whatever it takes to hold the state accountable," she said.

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

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