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Teachers seeking to meet with city officials stopped repeatedly at City Hall

Nevertheless, they persisted and met with members of city council during "A Day Without a Woman."

Greg Windle

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

About 30 women who teach in Philadelphia public schools were stopped repeatedly by police on Wednesday as they approached City Hall and sought to speak with members of City Council about the urgency of achieving a fair teachers’ contract. They’ve spent more than 1,200 days working without one.

The teachers used a personal day to take off work on International Women’s Day so they could lobby their representatives to provide additional funding for the School District, help them achieve a contract, and protest a culture that they said does not respect the female-dominated professions, including teaching.

The day began with “informational picketing” by mostly female teachers outside schools, an action encouraged by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to underscore the lack of a contract for union members. A PFT spokesman said that about 115 schools participated in that action.

The teachers who took part in “A Day Without a Woman” protests and showed up at City Hall later were mostly from Science Leadership Academy in Center City and Bayard Taylor Elementary in Hunting Park.

They first were stopped briefly by a city police officer who spotted them entering Dilworth Plaza. He asked why they were there, told them he would have to get clearance from a supervisor before allowing them entrance, and ignored their questions about why they were being prevented from entering a public building to speak with their elected representatives.

They were allowed to enter City Hall, where they said Councilwoman Helen Gym’s office was already expecting them, but after getting in line, the first group was pulled out and corralled in a corner of the entrance room for public visitors, who must have their IDs checked and receive a pass.

Police proceeded to pull out of line every person who acknowledged that they were “with the rally outside.”

Two more officers were called down to the lobby to guard the gate and told the teachers they would have to continue to wait for members of Civil Affairs to escort them.

The crowd began to question why they were being prevented from entering, saying they were not a safety risk and did not need to be escorted throughout the building.

“We’re public school teachers — we just want people to respect our work!” one called out.

“Oh, it’s gonna get crazy then!” the nearest cop responded, met by laughter from the women.

After 20 minutes, Civil Affairs arrived.

“We’re here to protect you,” one Civil Affairs officer explained. When asked why they would need protection, he grew frustrated and said, “Because there are other people who oppose what you do,” although he gave no indication who they might be and why they might pose a danger to the teachers.

More than 930 teachers in the School District of Philadelphia did not show up Wednesday, although it’s unclear how many of those absences were related to the “Day Without a Woman” protest. District officials said teacher absences were higher than normal – more than 10 percent of the 8,000-plus teachers in the system – but not unprecedented.

“Day Without a Woman” organizers wanted to highlight gender inequality and the important role that women play in society. Philadelphia educators seized on the opportunity to make their own political statement about fair pay.

Teachers and other school staff represented by the PFT haven’t had a contract since 2013. They’ve gone without raises since 2012.

Roughly 75 percent of PFT members are female, according to District data and union officials. Teachers picketing in the morning outside H.A. Brown Elementary School in Kensington said their plight related to broader inequities that women face in the workplace.

“Teaching is such a women-heavy career, so it kind of goes together,” said Niki Vazquez, an autistic support teacher at H.A. Brown. “Not having women, you wouldn’t really be able to have schools, either.”

Her colleague, Keren Tal, said Philly teachers would have a more lucrative contract by now if the profession were male-dominated.

“I feel like we’re easily stepped over,” said Tal. “It’s 2017, and women are equally important to our nation.”

To help supplement her income during the wage freeze, Tal has begun driving for Uber, earning $200 to $400 a month. Vazquez, meanwhile, has delayed having a third child because of financial concerns.

At SLA and Taylor, an overwhelming majority of teachers skipped work in protest.

Despite the unusually high number of teacher absences, just under three-quarters of all teacher openings were filled by substitutes, according to District officials. That’s about in line with the average fill rate for this year.

“While there were challenges today, with more than 930 teacher absences, it was another good day of instruction and growth across the School District of Philadelphia,” said district spokesman Lee Whack in a statement. “Principals, staff and teachers pulled together to ensure children were learning and academic instruction continued.”

At their morning informational picket, the female teachers of Science Leadership Academy — and a few men, too — explained why women across professions need to stand together in their struggle for a more equitable society.

Roughly two dozen teachers lined the outside of the school holding signs and handing out literature.

“Sin mujeres, no hay revolucion,” one sign read in Spanish. It translates: “Without women, there is no revolution.”

“I stand in solidarity,” another began, “with the 80% of social workers who are women and who take care of our society.”

“I stand in solidarity with women of ALL backgrounds who contribute to our socio-economic system yet still experience job insecurity and discrimination.”

“I think of it as a day without privileged women, because not all of us have this opportunity [to protest],” said Morgan Bushnell, a math teacher at SLA, referring to professions where women do not have union or other job protections.

Pia Martin, SLA’s health teacher, said she participated to demonstrate the power of women.

“I feel like I’m revisiting a time in my history that I don’t want to revisit,” she said. “It requires the passion of women in solidarity.”

And later that afternoon, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity as they were squeezed by police into a corner of the visitors’ entrance to City Hall.

And they continued to wait for 40 minutes, without one teacher leaving, until Civil Affairs agreed to start escorting small groups upstairs to the offices of their City Council members.

Two women from the First District met with their councilman, Mark Squilla. The Civil Affairs officer introduced himself to Squilla and explained, apparently for the first time, that there was a group of constituents in the building who wanted to speak with him.

Melanie Manuel, a Spanish teacher at SLA since 2008, began by saying, “I would love to stay in Philly for as long as possible,” but the past four years spent without a contract was beginning to weigh down her optimism. Like most younger teachers in the District, she’s been missing the step raises for accumulated experience that she would have been awarded under the old contract.

“Please stick it out,” Squilla said, adding that he not only understood her concerns, but shared them. He’s met with six different teachers in his own Council district who are thinking about leaving.

He said the School Reform Commission should have agreed years ago to a new contract. He also pointed out that while the SRC claims not to have money for the teachers’ contract, they’ve borrowed plenty to spend on other things.

Last fall, the District put an offer on the table that would have added more than $100 million to teacher compensation over five years. The PFT leadership rejected it as inadequate.

“This is the year to do it,” Squilla said about getting a new contract. “We have a short window to do this.”

He explained that in fiscal year 2019, the teachers’ pension system would need more revenue, the state is facing a growing budget deficit, and “the future of the District’s finances doesn’t look good.”

“If you go until 2019 without a contract, you may never get one,” he said, adding that he was optimistic about this year because the mayor’s office began sending staffers to meet with the SRC, encouraging further negotiations.

Of the SRC, he bluntly told the teachers that he hoped it would “end shortly” and the District would be returned to local control.

City Council “asks [the SRC] questions and they give answers, but they don’t have to listen to what we have to say,” he said. And because they’re unelected, “all we can do is rant and rave.”

The SRC has no taxing power of its own and must rely on City Council and the state for most of the revenue needed to operate schools. City Council has increased its funding for the District over the last several years, especially after deep state cutbacks. But the District remains in a precarious fiscal position.

The teachers asked Squilla what he thought they should be doing, and he said they were already doing it by being at City Hall that day.

But he thought that besides putting pressure on their City Council members, they should try talking to Mayor Kenney.

“We’ve got to constantly keep it at the front of everybody’s conversation,” he said, adding that the upcoming governor’s race was also important to win if city schools want to keep Gov. Wolf in office. Wolf has been an education advocate in Harrisburg and a supporter of the needs of Philadelphia and other urban districts.

Squilla said he had seen some appalling legislation coming out of the Statehouse recently. “It’s scary to think what might happen,” with a Republican governor, he said.

“I just saw a Republican bill to increase charter seats in the state by 3,000 every year,” he said, bewildered. “Where’s that money gonna come from?”

“Every kid deserves an opportunity,” he said about the state’s relative underfunding of Philadelphia schools. “If you’re saying they don’t need the same resources, then you’re denying them that opportunity to quality education.

“I’m on your side. I’ll be at these rallies with you.”

“We’ll hold you to that,” Manuel shot back.

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