Waving flags, honking horns, banging drums, and chanting, more than 1,000 people rallied Wednesday in Center City, protesting the Philadelphia School District's plans to transform schools — and possibly lay off 2,700 blue-collar workers.
Fourteen people, including labor leader George Ricchezza, were arrested for blocking traffic after they laid down red-white-and-blue "Save Our Schools" banners, sat in the middle of Broad and Race Streets, and refused to budge.
Demonstrators around the state, including more than 1,500 in Philadelphia, protested education cuts and the possible layoff of every member of SEIU 32BJ Local 1201, the city schools union representing bus assistants, cleaners, mechanics, and other workers. All have received pink slips and could be let go by the end of the year.
Before his arrest, veteran school building engineer Ernie Bennett addressed an angry but peaceful crowd that paused outside district headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.
"We didn't create this deficit!" Bennett shouted, motioning to the administrative building. "We should not be held accountable for the mismanagement of these people in here."
Protesters followed a Teamsters tractor-trailer as it made its slow way up North Broad, blowing its air horn. After union officials were turned away from entering district headquarters, they retraced their steps and stopped at Broad and Race, just past Hahnemann University Hospital.
Eleven men and three women were handcuffed and led into police vans.
Arrested were a group including 32BJ president Ricchezza, union health and welfare administrator Dennis Biondo, retired teachers Lisa Haver and Ronald Whitehorne, and others. They were released later in the day and are to be arraigned in June.
Teetering on the brink of financial insolvency, the district is banking on $50 million in cost savings from modernizing custodial services, transportation, and maintenance to balance its 2012-13 budget. Union leaders fear the district will privatize jobs.
Ricchezza said before his arrest that talks would continue this week.
"We're putting money on the table," Ricchezza said. "Now it's up to them."
Spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district is engaged "in good-faith efforts to come to an agreement on changes that will result in savings necessary to continue to support educational programs in schools. Because we are in active negotiations, the district will not comment any further."
Their concerns aren't just jobs and finances, protesters said. A planned overhaul of the way schools are organized and run is coming, and it has drawn wide criticism.
District officials have said they want to dramatically shrink central operations and place schools in "achievement networks" run either by district staff who have contracts with the School Reform Commission or outside entities such as universities or charter organizations.
They also plan to close 40 schools in 2013 and six more every year until 2017.
Shannon Lane, a bus aide for 16 years, faces being laid off at the end of the year. She's angry that "wealthy corporations aren't being taxed fairly, and public schools are being cut."
And she doesn't like the plan.
"This is privatization," Lane said. "Children will lose."
Maintenance worker Steve Seibert said he was worried about his paycheck and benefits. His 10-year-old son is paralyzed and requires constant care, Seibert said.
"I need medical coverage," he said. "I don't want to go on the system. I've got pride in myself. I want to work."
City Councilman Bobby Henon, one of several Council members who joined the marchers, called the district's layoff threat part of an "all-out attempt to privatize municipal governments and school districts."
"It's a systemic attempt to tear down everything that we built in this country, what the middle class built," said Henon, who was an official in the powerful local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
32BJ workers earn between $17,000 and $60,000. They were joined at the protest by representatives from other unions, including Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who addressed the crowd.
"Don't think that you're out here by yourself," Jordan said. "You're not. You're not!"
Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education, reminded the crowd that when officials tried to hand every district school over to Edison Schools Inc. in 2000, a strong backlash from parents, workers, and others halted that plan.
"We shut this city down, and we'll do it again," Gym said. "We took a stand for kids, and we'll do it again."
Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.