They say you should never make decisions out of fear, but on Wednesday, when I announced that I was prepared to recommend to members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that we forgo salary increases and make changes to our health-benefits plan, I was indeed motivated by fear - fear of what our schools and classrooms will look like if we can't restore the programs and services lost with the layoffs of nearly 4,000 school employees in June.
These are fears shared by educators, parents, and students alike, and they are fears based on a stark reality: Our schools were insufficiently staffed in June, and these conditions will only worsen in the fall without much-needed funding.
As of now, when schools open on Sept. 9, students can expect a return to overcrowded classrooms and split grades; a shocking lack of guidance counselors (none at schools with fewer than 600 students); one school nurse for every 1,500 students; no money for books and supplies; and no librarians.
These are the issues weighing heavily on the minds of PFT members, and are no doubt the primary concerns of parents and students. The PFT's desire to prevent this unprecedented set of circumstances prompted Wednesday's announcement. Although the city's educators are not responsible for our district's deficit, we all want to contribute to a solution for our schoolchildren.
Unfortunately, elected leaders and district officials think teachers and school employees should be the primary source of funds to ease the crisis. Their reaction to my announcement was, "It's not enough." They are not totally wrong - any savings we achieve through the changes I've proposed won't be enough to restore our schools to what they should be. The same is true of the city's $50 million commitment, and Gov. Corbett's $2 million in additional education funding. None of it is enough.
But rather than keep the focus on a conversation about how to increase revenue for schools (and whom to hold accountable for this mess), Mayor Nutter instead wants to shift more attention to work rules in the PFT contract.
These kinds of personnel management concerns are worthwhile to discuss, particularly in more secure economic times. But to focus on work rules when our schools can't afford copy paper is an irresponsible distraction from what really matters. Regardless of how parents may feel about teachers' work rules, site selection, or tenure, it is foolish to suggest that these topics are anywhere near the top of their list of concerns - and they certainly aren't on the minds of our students.
Many of our neighborhoods are still coming to grips with the closing of 27 schools and thousands of layoffs. Our district is in desperate need of financial stability. The PFT, the mayor, and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. all acknowledge that the only way our schoolchildren will receive all of the programs and services they need is through a funding formula that ensures sustainable financial resources for our district.
If we put our collective resources together to urge Harrisburg to make such a formula a reality, we could put an end to annual austerity budgets, doomsday staffing scenarios, and uncertainty about the future of public education in Philadelphia. It's a simple enough goal to work toward, but only if we concentrate on what really matters to our children.