Philadelphians great and small are reacting with great passion to the crisis facing the School District of Philadelphia — and that’s good.
Because, let’s be honest, a substantial share of what’s wrong with the District exists because taxpayers and stakeholders have been far too apathetic for far too long.
We sat idly by while district officials swept in and then out of town, taking with them suitcases full of taxpayer money. We looked the other way when highly paid consultants were awarded millions in district contracts; and we stood by idly while an entity established for the educational benefit of Philadelphia’s children re-established itself for the financial benefit of Philadelphia’s politically-connected adults.
But now, the well has run dry. The district is facing a financial shortfall next year somewhere north of $200 million, despite having instituted sweeping financial reform measures and deep cuts to personnel and programs.
Those cuts, and the district’s recently proposed blueprint for financial turnaround, have come under fire from several sides.
Tonight, parents and interested stakeholders will join such diverse groups as Occupy Philly, ACTION United and the Service Employees International Union at Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia for the second in a series of school district-themed community meetings sponsored by local churches. The first meeting, held at Enon Baptist Church, drew a crowd of more than 2,500 residents who gave School Reform Commission representatives a lesson in civic discourse by strenuously objecting to a school reform plan which they say weakens our schools — and public education.
Local 32BJ, the blue-collar union that represents nearly 3,000 bus drivers, janitors and other Philadelphia school employees, is planning a large rally tomorrow in Center City to protest mass layoffs and what they see as attempts to privatize public education. All of those employees have already received layoff notices, effective at the end of the school year.
Several legislators have begun to push forward an alternative plan, one that counters Mayor Michael Nutter’s goal of using funds from property reassessments to restore $94 million to the school district’s budget. Calling the mayor’s plan nothing more than a back-door tax hike, they plan to use other methods, such as adjusting the city’s wage tax for non-residents, to add the needed boost to district coffers.
The reorganization blueprint, opponents argue, is long on cuts and belt-tightening measures, but short on any actual benefit to students. Drastic cuts to art, music, sports, and after-school and extracurricular activities may boost the bottom line, they say, but deprive students of a fully rounded educational experience.
It has been too long since Philadelphians were fired up over a single issue, and we’re glad it’s this one. Few things are as vital to our city’s future as the state of public education, and if it takes a crisis to bring people together to unite for our youth, then at least that crisis has a silver lining.