A call to cut the cuts

“They want to cut us down to a skeleton crew,” Forrest teacher Spencer Glass says of school district officials.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers believes that the proposed state budget undermines eight consecutive years of gains on student standardized testing.

In addition, the union argues, the cuts will slash vital educational programs.

The PFT, which represents 16,000 teachers and support staff, is hoping to stop Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget from being adopted.

“We are lobbying everyone in Harrisburg,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the union.

Last week, teachers and staff from across the city conducted an informational picketing campaign.

Jordan joined the folks from Abraham Lincoln High School and Mayfair School on the morning of May 10.

According to the union boss, reductions in state education funding would mean drastic cuts in school safety, small-class size initiatives, full-day kindergarten, alternative education programs, early childhood education, transportation, libraries, school nurses and counseling.

Jordan is equally concerned about cuts to art, music and sports. Lincoln last week presented two productions of Little Shop of Horrors.

“Kids should be able to leave school feeling good about being successful at something,” he said.

In all, Corbett has proposed cutting $1.2 billion in state education funding. Some $292 million would come out of the School District of Philadelphia’s coffers.

The school district is facing a $629 million deficit. Many blame its leaders for doing a poor job of planning ahead, knowing that federal stimulus money would come to an end.

Corbett’s proposed basic education subsidy would place funding levels at pre-stimulus 2008–09 levels. In his March 8 budget address to the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives, he said, “Washington gave and Washington took away.”

The stimulus package, passed in February 2009, has generally been ineffective in helping school districts and other beneficiaries recover from the recession.

The school district has already announced it will reduce kindergarten to a half-day program and reduce the number of pre-kindergarten programs. More than 3,800 jobs might be eliminated.

The PFT is urging members and parents to call the Capitol switchboard to tell Corbett and state lawmakers that they oppose the cuts. The union also has an online petition.

The city and state budget deadlines are June 30. The school district’s current annual budget is $3.2 billion, but it might be reduced to $2.7 billion starting July 1 if funding is cut.

City Council will hold budget hearings on May 24 and 25, and union officials are hopeful that Council will somehow find a way to increase funding to the school district.

Lincoln staff last week donned PFT T-shirts and handed leaflets to motorists stopped at the traffic light at Rowland and Ryan avenues. They carried signs with sayings such as, “Yale or Jail?? Fund Schools Not Prisons.”

Louise Jordan, a special education liaison and Lincoln’s PFT representative, held a sign that read, “Fund Our Schools Not Vouchers.”

Jordan has been at the school for 30 years and is the second-most senior teacher. She worries that non-teaching assistant positions could be eliminated.

“We have to keep NTAs to keep the school safe,” she said.

In addition, Jordan is a former volleyball and basketball coach, and she doesn’t want to see junior varsity athletic programs eliminated.

The new Lincoln building is 2 years old, and the school district promised the community that it would house no more than 1,500 students. Well, enrollment is about 2,000 and growing.

“We’re getting more students than anticipated,” Jordan said. “Classes are packed. We need more staff. Instead, they’re cutting.”

Over at Edwin Forrest School, at 7300 Cottage St., staffers gathered in the schoolyard. They fear the potential loss of the Bright Futures pre-school program and parent ombudsman Beverly Cylinder. She works with parents on issues such as absence, lateness and truancy.

There are about 1,300 pupils in pre-school through sixth grade at Forrest, and teachers worry that class size will be increased. Right now, the limit is 33 pupils in fourth through sixth grades and 30 in kindergarten through third grade.

Also vulnerable to cuts could be reading assistants, the nurse, counselors and recess, lunch and classrooms aides.

Spencer Glass, a sixth-grade teacher and the school’s PFT representative, said many parents will have to adjust their schedules if kindergarten is cut to a half-day.

Glass said city, state and school district officials like to see improved test scores, but he thinks those gains are threatened.

“They want to cut us down to a skeleton crew,” he said. ••

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com