In a sea of red shirts, thousands of Philadelphia teachers filled the Liacouras Center on Temple University's campus on Labor Day to hear about the very real labor woes affecting their union.
Teachers said they were scared, upset, and worried about the precarious position of the 136,000-student school district and the way the district is treating its professionals.
"It's going to be a tough school year," said Len Fennessy, an English teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in the Northeast.
The 15,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the school district have not been able to reach agreement on a new contract to replace the pact that expired Saturday.
The district is seeking $103 million in concessions including pay cuts of 5 percent to 13 percent, cutbacks in health care, a longer school day, and flexibility to assign teachers to schools without regard for seniority. Negotiations are set to resume Tuesday - the first day of school for teachers. Students are scheduled to report on Sept. 9.
More than 4,000 union members showed up for the meeting, which culminated in a vote to continue negotiating, union officials said.
"PFT members will not take a 5, 10, or 13 percent pay cut," PFT president Jerry Jordan told members.
At a news conference later, he said some progress had been made in negotiations, although he declined to be specific, but said "a significant amount of work" remains.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who attended the meeting, said the entire country is watching Philadelphia.
"This is a metaphor for how a country, a state, and a city actually treats its most vulnerable charges," she said.
The school district issued a statement after the meeting, saying the PFT's offer to forgo across-the-board raises for one year and health care changes fall "far short of the $103 million in recurring savings our students need and does not include necessary educational reforms."
Before the meeting, the AFT released a poll that it said found 65 percent of voters are dissatisfied with Mayor Nutter's handling of public education. The poll of 501 voters was conducted last week by Guy Molyneux of Hart Research for the AFT. Only 30 percent of those polled said they were satisfied with Nutter's work on public education.
"It's rather odd that, with an expired contract, the PFT is spending time on anything not directly related to negotiations," said Nutter, who has supported the school district's proposals for cutbacks and work-rule changes. "It's not about polls or thousands of dollars spent on a false ad campaign. It's about Philadelphia children and public education."
Among those who showed up for the meeting were laid-off teachers and teachers who had been transferred to other schools. Brittany Bartkus lost her job as a physical education teacher at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts. She will be at Fels High.
"My students were devastated," she said. "I had kids crying in my arms."
She is adamantly against a pay cut.
"I don't think it's fair for the teachers to have to compensate for the mismanagement of funding by the state," she said, wearing a red shirt, designed by a former student, that read: "Save our futures. Save our schools."
Some employees declined to give their names, including a laid-off teaching assistant who said she had just stopped crying and didn't want to start again.
"I'm scared," said another employee. "I don't know how I can live on what they want to do."
Many were concerned about conditions schools would face, given the layoffs of thousands of teachers, counselors, and other professionals in June. Not every school will have a counselor, and there will be only one nurse for every 1,500 students, Jordan noted.
"It's unbelievable. I can't imagine, not having a counselor, a nurse," said Barbara Foster, a teaching assistant at the Hamilton School. "Our kids have a lot of issues. They come to school with a lot of baggage."
Michael Schieber, a physical-education teacher at Bodine High School, a magnet, said he's concerned the city will lose its best and brightest teachers if it cuts pay and benefits. His girlfriend recently left the district to teach at a private school because of the instability, he said.
"How many hardworking, motivated people are going to push to become teachers if there's not a pay raise?" he asked. "Instead, what you're going to get is people who can't get jobs in other fields."
Schieber said the mood among teachers was sinking.
"Every year I've been in the district, it's been worse and worse. Last year was the worst."