THE MESSAGE from the parents and students who poured into City Council chambers yesterday was clear: Save our schools.
Facing a $629 million deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1, the Philadelphia School District plans drastic cuts to teachers and programs, if it doesn't get some 11th-hour help.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman this week asked Council and the mayor to provide an additional $75 million to $110 million to help stave off some painful cuts, like slashing full-day kindergarten. Mayor Nutter has stressed his support for the request, although he has not specified how the city could provide the money.
The city is already set to provide $815 million in tax revenues and grant funding to the schools next year - roughly 30 percent of the district's budget. A severe loss in state and federal funds opened up the funding gap.
Yesterday, there seemed to be no consensus in Council over what to do. Members said they were sympathetic to the schools' needs, but several said they would not consider raising taxes. The city's key options would be raising taxes to provide more revenue, or shifting more property-tax revenue to the schools, which would create a hole in the city budget.
"I am supportive of giving them more money," said Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller. But asked about solutions, she said, "It's not to raise taxes, that's for sure."
Councilman Darrell Clarke said he was still hoping to get more details on the state budget before committing to a course.
"I would like to get a sense of what the state could contribute," Clarke said,. "before we look at dipping into the pockets of the residents of Philadelphia."
On her way into the hearing, Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez said: "Nobody wants to touch this. We'll see after these people beat us up for eight hours if they change their minds."
Here are some of the Philadelphians who spoke up yesterday:
NAME: Emmanuel Bussie, 45, with Elshadye Bussie, 6
SCHOOL: Elshadye and her older sister attend Thomas Mifflin Elementary, on Conrad Street near Penn, in East Falls.
"We all know this is an assault on urban America and education by not just Pennsylvania, but state governments across America. . . . I think that we can't allow Harrisburg or anybody else to play games with us. We need all the programs. We should have absolutely no cuts. . . . We need to use the judiciary process just like New Jersey did. If New Jersey can sue and get $500 million back in their school system, why can't we use the judicial process?"
NAME: Natalie Alicea, 19
SCHOOL: She's a graduate of North Philadelphia Community High School, an alternate-education school, and mother of a 3-year-old son.
"I didn't know how to read or write. My teacher sat down with me and taught me how to read and write properly. There's still young people out there that need that push. Please keep [North Philadelphia Community High School] open. I know it will continue to help future students."
NAME: Danita Bates, 41
SCHOOL: Her 10-year-old son attends Tanner Duckrey Elementary School, at 15th and Diamond streets, in North Philly.
"I want to know why are there so many changes being made currently when the budget cuts haven't even happened yet. The class sizes are already beginning to get larger. . . . How can I imagine 2014, when I fear 2011 so much?"
NAME: Dei'Vion Wescott, 11
SCHOOL: She's a sixth-grader at Thomas M. Peirce School, at 23rd and Cambria streets, in the Swampoodle section of North Philly.
"We do not have a library, an auditorium or a working gym. . . . Now we are losing four teachers. . . . We are good, strong students, but we need a level playing field. We are the future."
NAME: Lucille Clark, 82
AGENDA: Her grandson Caleb, 5, is set to start kindergarten this year.
"They're cutting it on the backs of little children like my grandson. Help us."
NAME: Mary Goldman
AGENDA: With Americans for Democratic Action, which advocates for schools.
"We know hundreds of classrooms run out of paper by March and that schools lack many of the basics. . . . Now we have threats to cut all-day kindergarten, transportation and accelerated school that have proved successful in teaching at-risk kids." She added that it's disheartening, like "state legislators who would rather see Philadelphia fall into the Schuylkill."