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Message to officials from parents, students, clergy: $50 million is not enough

  • power rally mchugh
    Photo: Mark McHugh

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by Paul Socolar and Mark McHugh

[Updated, 9:20 a.m.]

At the close of a spirited press conference and rally on the steps of the District headquarters Monday afternoon, a crowd of public school parents, students, and clergy members chanted, "It's not enough!" -- criticizing local officials for setting their sights too low as they haggle over how to come up with $50 million in additional funding for the struggling School District.

The failure of elected officials to figure out how to raise needed funds for the schools was also the main topic of a town meeting Monday evening at Mother Bethel AME Church in Center City attended by about 300 people.

If the mayor, City Council and governor can't come up with the full $180 million that all have agreed is needed to reverse deep cuts, parents may keep their children at home this September, said Kevin R. Johnson, senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, who also represents a coalition of congregations called P.O.W.E.R. That group also organized Monday's town meeting.

"We are calling on every parent not to send your children to an unsafe school," he said.

At the meeting, Johnson called more directly for a boycott and for the state and city to come up with $180 million by September.

Johnson also called out Gov. Corbett for lack of state support.

"Mr. Governor, you are guilty of neglecting the children of this city," he thundered  "The fire is not going to be put out unless you come back with $180 million."

P.O.W.E.R executive director Bishop Dwayne Royster said that parents should signal clearly that they will not stand for what is happening.

"I have never seen this level of catastrophe and I can say that because I've lived here 43 years of my life," Royster said. "They're going to expect you (parents) to be satisfied with crumbs on the table."

Attendees at the meeting called officials on the spot.

Activist Nick Palazzolo, who works for the University City Collaborative, said that he got through directly to Mayor Nutter on his cell phone,  but that the mayor kept telling him to call back during the day at his office.

"I told him that many people would like to speak to him right now, many have already called him at his office, they've left messages, and if he's kindly respond to them so that people know that he's listening," Palazzolo related .

Johnson noted that it's been months since Superintendent William Hite said that the District could only survive its budget crisis if it got $180 million in new revenue -- $60 million in additional city aid and $120 million in state aid -- as well as deep concessions from its unionized employees.

"To our dismay, nothing has happened," he said -- except for "politicians dickering with other politicians."

Funding plans touted by Gov. Corbett and Mayor Nutter have never added up to the full $180 million, and most of the promised money still is not a certainty. The consistent message from Monday's protesters was that a revenue shortfall will leave too many critical positions in schools unfilled.

Mayor Nutter and City Council have so far only been able to agree that the city should be able to deliver the District $28 million in additional revenues from better tax collections. 

Gov. Corbett's "rescue plan" for Philadelphia schools so far has resulted in only $2 million in additional education funding from the state.

Another $45 million will only be released by the state after the District has extracted substantial concessions from its unions, state officials say. And while Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke seem intent on providing $50 million in city funds to the District, they don't agree on whether to do that by borrowing against future sales tax revenues or buying District properties.

If all that money came through, the District would still be $55 million short of the $180 million that Hite said he needed.

Sharron Snyder of the Philadelphia Student Union, a rising senior at Ben Franklin High School, is worried about the 500 new students her school is supposed to receive next month due to school closings. "My school won't have any aides to help new students get acquainted to our building." And she's worried about the lack of counselors and how students will apply to college.

The $50 million now being discussed by city officials will not be enough to restore those staff and other needed positions like secretaries, she said.

"They're leaving us with a principal, some teachers, and cops."

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