January 4 — 8:10 pm, 2012

Protesters continue Occupy 440 movement

img 4018 Photo: Dale Mezzacappa

The intrepid band of protesters was undeterred by the cold.

For nearly an hour Wednesday afternoon in below-freezing temperatures, they carried signs and listened to speakers decry budget cuts and layoffs at the School District, especially the termination of 47 school nurses.

Pointedly, speakers called out politicians and officials for misguided "reform," drawing attention instead to severe budget cuts that have virtually crippled the District.

"Mayor Nutter has got to be kidding," said Eileen DiFranco, the school nurse at Roxborough High School who is a leader of the Occupy 440 protest effort.

Noting that the mayor and several others are off to Denver to study cooperation between charters and traditional public schools, DiFranco said they are ignoring the real issue – what she called the "deliberate" failure of the state and city to adequately fund public education in Philadelphia.

"Who is talking about this gross misallocation of resources?" DiFranco asked. "Are we the only ones who care?"

She criticized not just the mayor, but Gov. Corbett and state legislators. But she said that Nutter and the School Reform Commission are culpable because they have "settled for less" without complaint.

Corbett and the General Assembly cut state education aid by a billion dollars this year, with fully one-quarter of that total falling on Philadelphia. The District has been forced to close a $629 million budget gap – a painful process that has fomented instability in schools and in central office. And the situation is only expected to get worse with the next state budget, which Corbett will unveil next month.

Other speakers, including Eileen Duffey, the school nurse at the Academy at Palumbo, said that cutting back nurses is a risky strategy that will cost far more in the long run as undetected or untreated medical problems interfere with students’ ability to learn.

Nurses, Duffey said, form relationships with students in addition to assessing their medical needs.

"We keep students in school," Duffey said. "We need to get the word out that what we do is actually a bargain."

Protesters carried signs like "Speak up, Philly" and "How low can we go?" Other signs raised the specter of lawsuits due to "medical errors" caused by too few nurses in schools.

Joan Taylor, a teacher at Middle Years Academy, said children come to her classroom with all sorts of issues, from hunger to head lice, from asthma to pink eye.

"Figuring out a sick kid can’t learn isn’t rocket science," she said.

DiFranco said the group plans to continue their protest every Wednesday afternoon in front of District headquarters. 

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