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SRC listens to anger for hours, after thousands protest contract cancellaton

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    Photo: Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks

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For nearly three hours Thursday night, the School Reform Commission listened to harsh and bitter criticism of its move last week to cancel its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and unliaterally change health benefits for the union's 11,500 members. 

The SRC's first meeting since its Oct. 6 action followed a demonstration outside District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. that drew what police estimated as upwards of 3,000 angry teachers and their supporters, who listened to speeches, chanted, and vowed labor solidarity.

Inside the meeting, SRC members were lectured by more than 50 teachers, parents, legislators and one student. Alfredo Practico of Masterman Middle School called teachers "heroes" and said it was wrong to take anything away from them.

Then PFT president Jerry Jordan called the SRC members "liars." Former PFT president Ted Kirsch called out SRC members individually, especially Green, whose father, Mayor Bill Green III, famously reneged on a 10 percent raise for the PFT in 1981, precipitating a 50-day strike.

"It must be genetic," Kirsch taunted.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten spoke at the rally, but did not address the SRC.

State Sen. Tina Tartaglione testified that she was planning to go back to Harrisburg after the election and "first thing," introduce legislation to abolish the SRC.

First-year Lea Elementary School teacher Jesse Gottschalk said, "Teachers sacrifice every day to keep our contract with the students." The SRC should be "ashamed," he said.

One of the last speakers, retired teacher Karel Kilimnik, told the SRC it had "stolen hope and opportunities from our students" and "money from the pockets of teachers."

Throughout the meeting, the crowd shouted and interrupted, often completely drowning out anyone who expressed support for what the SRC had done, including Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership and former Board of Education member Helen Cunningham, now president of the Samuel S. Fels Fund.

The SRC has said it canceled the contract and reduced health benefits so that it could redirect millions in personnel, programs and supplies into severely under-resourced schools. Gleason was a lonely voice defending this as a worthwhile tradeoff. His testimony was impossible to hear in the auditorium over shouts and catcalls, but he made a written version available.

"We have a system today in which teachers get free health care and students don’t get librarians, or textbooks," he said.

Cunningham praised the SRC for making "hard choices," noting that the current commission's predecessors had failed to rein in benefits. But amid boos and hisses, she gave up and walked away. 

Security around the meeting was tight. Dozens of police officers stood on the steps of District headquarters and put up barriers to prevent people from going inside. City and District police checked bags and made people discard water bottles. No one was allowed inside until about 20 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to start.

Many speakers also criticized SRC member Sylvia Simms for her response to members of the Philadelphia Student Union who disrupted the showing of Won't Back Down, a feature film bankrolled by pro-school choice and anti-union groups about parents taking over a failing school. The screening was part of a parent outreach event on Wednesday night.

Simms, accused of saying that the protesting students must attend "failing schools" and belong in jail, didn't respond to demands for apologies or give an explanation of her remarks. Green defended her. 

During the protest before the meeting, teachers vented their frustration and sense of betrayal.

Cayuga Elementary teacher Will Hamilton is a registered Republican who doesn't usually come out to SRC meetings and says he won’t be voting for Gov. Corbett in this year’s election. 

“We want a fair contract. That’s all we’re asking for, and they don’t want to negotiate,” Hamilton said. "I'm pretty angry." 

Hamilton said he has two kids in college. "I’m struggling to pay for them. Now I’m supposed to put out more money. I don’t know where it’s going to come from. It’s not just about money though; it’s about doing what’s right.”

Erin Giorgio teaches 9th- and 10th-grade math at Science Leadership Academy. She brought along her 4½-month-old son in a carrier, who was draped in a sign that read, “My mom keeps her contract with her students.”

She is concerned both as a teacher and as a prospective public school parent.

“I’m a new parent and I am hopeful that in the next couple of years, my child will be a Philadelphia public school student. So I am very concerned that as the SRC unilaterally broke our contract, that is going to cause a lot of teachers to leave the School District,” she said.

She calculated that the new health care changes would cost her family more than $8,000. This is because she doesn’t consider the new base plan being offered to be an adequate option. 

Also at the protest, but surrounded by police, were about a dozen people holding up banners that said "PFT Fails," a demonstration organized by the conservative Commonwealth Foundation.

Those holding up the signs, who were hired to be there, stayed silent. But Commonwealth Foundation president Matthew Brouillette, who waded through the crowd, answered questions.

"We're here on behalf of the good teachers in the Philadelphia public schools that the PFT's policies are harming," he said. 

He said that the union is "blocking millions of dollars from going into the classroom" and "stands in the way of the good policies that would improve things for teachers and the students in the city."  

After the SRC meeting adjourned, Superintendent William Hite and Green continued to defend the contract cancellation as necessary to put critical resources in schools now. 

"Children don't have the resources they need. That's what this was about, getting resources back into classrooms," Hite told reporters. 

Asked when the benefit changes would go into effect, Green said Dec. 15. "But what has already gone into effect is a school with 3,000 students, Northeast High School, is now going have instead of $15,000 in its operating budget, $346,000 in its operating budget." Central High, with more than 2,000 students, will get an additional $200,000. Schools are receiving $100 to $125 per student.

The District started returning $15 million to schools this week and plans to add another $15 million next month and $13 million in April. "That's happening now," Green said.

Green said that SRC negotiators had met with the PFT 121 times and were prepared to do so now to reach an agreement. 

Most people left the room before the SRC voted on its resolutions, a process that took less than five minutes. As in other recent meetings, there were no questions or comments from SRC members on any of the agenda items.

The commission voted 4-0 not to renew the charter of Arise Academy, which was founded to educate foster children, affirming a decision made by the SRC in 2012. Farah Jimenez abstained. The school will stay open for now and can still appeal the decision to the state Charter Appeals Board.

The school's current leader, Roberta Trombetta, made a last-ditch plea to keep it open, saying that Arise takes in students asked to leave traditional schools and is making progress in becoming a more stable environment for them.

Megan McCrea of the Rotary Club of Chestnut Hill also urged the SRC to keep the school open. The Rotary Club mentors and tutors Arise students, she said. But commissioners were unmoved.

The SRC also voted to sell the long vacant Gillespie Middle School to Mastery Charter for $250,000. The building is adjacent to Gratz High School, which Mastery now operates and has expanded to include middle grades.

The commission also voted to sell Wilson Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia to University of the Sciences for $2 million -- the third time in recent months that it has approved the sale of the property.

Before closing the meeting, SRC Chair Green quipped, "I am tempted to offer a resolution to eliminate the SRC, but I'm afraid there would be five votes for it, so I won't."

The SRC has the authority under current law to abolish itself, as many of the meeting's participants were calling for.

 Additional reporting by Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks.

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Dale Mezzacappa

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Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.