As Jerry Jordan blasted School Reform Commission restructuring plans Tuesday night, heads turned to the back of the room, to a line of children, sporting a poster with a simple message: "We need better schools."
Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, spoke out against SRC proposals to overhaul the Philadelphia School District's structure and planned layoffs to nurses and other professionals at an "emergency community meeting" held at Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia.
The meeting, organized by members of the activist group Action United, the Service Employees International Union, and the community, was called to address the collection of issues facing the Philadelphia School District and its finances. Parents and students were encouraged to write their visions for the district on paper lining the walls of the room.
Speakers at the meeting pushed the need for more prioritized government dollars for public education and rallied community members for a march and other events before the May 31 SRC budget vote.
The restructuring plan the SRC laid out in April would make way for a decentralized model, which would include the creation of "achievement networks" — groups of 25 schools run by either district staff or outside nonprofit providers, such as charter organizations or universities.
The plan calls for increasing numbers of district students to attend charter schools and to cut 64 schools by 2017. Critics call it a privatization of the public school system.
School officials have maintained that the restructuring is necessary and that the current model isn't working, but have said they would continue to consider public input.
Action United members noted SRC members' and Mayor Nutter's absence at the meeting, saying invitations had been sent two weeks ago.
A vote on the SRC's restructuring, originally anticipated for the end of May, will likely not be taken until 2013.
Not everyone at the meeting was critical of the SRC, which faces a $218 million budget shortfall for the 2012-13 school year in its proposed $2.5 billion budget.
"The SRC members take an oath to operate the SRC in an fiscally responsible manner. They have been faced with a massive precipitous drop in revenue. So they are forced [to make] precipitous cuts in expenses, and that is a totally absorbing process," Thomas H. Massaro, a former Philadelphia housing director, said. "What's required is a public discussion as a city on: What level of education do we fund? What level of educational services to provide? What would that cost, and how would we get there? And that's the discussion that's not really taking place yet."
District officials have said the shortfall would be filled with borrowed money, with state approval. Still, the shortfall could grow to $1.1 million, if Nutter's proposed Actual Value Initiative property-tax plan, expected to raise $94 million for the district, is not passed.
"I cannot say that I support the [AVI]," City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell said after the meeting. "I think that the schools have big problems, but I don't know that this is the way to solve it."
Others at the talked about the need for parent and community involvement with district decisions and for more after-school programs, safety, and art-related classes.
Contact Angelo Fichera at 215-854-2771.