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Photo: Dale Mezzacappa

Dale Mezzacappa / The Notebook

PFT, unions turn out in force at SRC to protest cuts

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

More than 500 union members rallied outside School District headquarters before Monday’s School Reform Commission meeting, then streamed inside en masse to protest massive cutbacks and layoffs that leaders said will decimate schools and jeopardize academic gains.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan vowed that his union would not reopen its contract to help the SRC find savings to help close a $629 million budget gap.

"This is a budget crisis largely of your own creation," he told the SRC.

Red-clad PFT members packed the SRC auditorium, delaying the start of the meeting for several minutes with chants, songs, and cheers. Others filled the first-floor atrium that showed a video feed of the meeting. They also lined the second-floor balconies overlooking the atrium and cheered boisterously when Jordan addressed the commissioners.

Jordan asked the SRC to "imagine September 2011," when he said the District will have 1,000 fewer early childhood slots, 323 fewer special education teachers, 619 fewer elementary education teachers, and 350 fewer math, science, English, and social studies teachers.

"With the cuts you have made, I fear, you are preparing today’s students for failure," Jordan said.

Earlier, outside the building, in a rare joint appearance, the presidents of the principals’ association and the District’s blue-collar unions joined Jordan to address the protest.

"We stand with you," said Robert McGrogan, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators. "Without you our members cannot do their jobs. A war is being declared on all workers simultaneously."

George Ricchezza, president of the 32BJ chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which represents maintenance and other non-teaching personnel, said that "this is unprecedented."

In 10 years, he said, the SRC went from "a balanced budget to a $629 million deficit" when the very purpose for its creation was to put the District’s fiscal house in order.

Teachers described how their school staffs were being decimated by layoffs. More than 1,500 teachers are among nearly 4,000 laid off District workers.

"Our school has improved 150 percent and all the people who made it possible are gone," said Eileen DiFranco, the nurse at Roxborough High School.

Carefully built teams that included administrators, teachers, student advisors, and other workers that were designed to reduce truancy and improve school climate will have to be dismantled, she said.

Chris LeShok, a 6th grade teacher at Whittier Elementary, said three "really good" teachers got layoff notices at the North Philadelphia school.

"One is a brand new teacher, smart, highly qualified, her students are learning," LeShok said. The others are second-year teachers.

"We’re not broke. Not the state, not the country, not the District. There’s money out there," LeShok said.

In addition to Jordan, more than 30 speakers addressed the SRC, many of them decrying the cuts in areas like special education, parent engagement, and translation services. The commission listened without comment.

In a late development, Jordan said that state Supreme Court Justice Max Baer had issued a stay order, effectively postponing a lower court hearing scheduled for Tuesday to deal with the manner in which the District conducted the teacher layoffs. The high court is reviewing the documents relating to the case and no action can take place on the case in the meantime.

The union had gone to court to block the layoffs, saying that the District’s exemption of teachers in Promise Academies from layoffs violated the contract. Commonwealth Court Judge Idee C. Fox issued a temporary restraining order that put the layoffs on hold and scheduled the Tuesday hearing.

While the layoffs are still on hold, it is unclear what the Supreme Court’s involvement means for the ultimate disposition of the union’s case. Promise Academies are schools getting extra resources for "turnaround" under the supervision of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Ackerman, who is out of town, did not attend the SRC meeting.

Notebook staffers Dale Mezzacappa and Paul Socolar and intern Katrina Morrison contributed reporting for this article.