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Public lobbies Council for more school funding

Concerned parents, students, educators and advocated packed City Hall on Wednesday to call for millions in new funding.

Students (no ids) in the balcony hold signs during Philadelphia school district budget hearings before City Council May 7, 2014. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Students (no ids) in the balcony hold signs during Philadelphia school district budget hearings before City Council May 7, 2014. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff PhotographerRead more

SEVENTH-GRADER Angela Beqiri's math class does not have textbooks.

Terrilyn McCormick's child sat in a classroom with more than 40 students to begin the school year due to a staffing shortage.

Fishtown resident Danya Lingle's son was bullied and assaulted at an elementary school with no support staff to come to his aid.

Those three were among dozens of concerned parents, students, educators and advocates who testified before City Council yesterday, urging members to provide the Philadelphia School District with additional funding to avoid more than 1,000 layoffs.

District officials testified Monday before Council that they need $216 million in new funds to maintain current staffing, which leaves many schools without counselors, nurses or librarians. The district is asking the city for $195 million, including $120 million from the extension of the sales-tax increase and an additional $75 million. Without the money, the district said it would be forced to lay off about 1,000 employees - mostly teachers - and class sizes could average 40 students.

McCormick, a parent of two students in the district, said parents have had to donate reams of paper this year and raise funds for after-school clubs. She said she fears the drastic cuts outlined are not political posturing, but could actually become reality unless the funding comes through.

"They proved this year there is no bottom to how low they will go," she said, referring to the district. "These are our kids. [This] is our city's future. We really have no choice."

Several speakers blamed Gov. Corbett and the Legislature in Harrisburg for the constant funding shortfall, but asked city lawmakers to help stop the bleeding.

"We are not here because this Council failed to act. We are here because the state took action to make our situation worse," said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an advocacy group. Cooper, an ex-policy director for former Gov. Ed Rendell, urged Council to put the $120 million toward the schools and lobby the state for more funding.

Lingle, who moved to the city three years ago, recalled how her special-needs son was pulled from a support classroom and placed in a general-education classroom due to budget cuts, which led to bullying and a physical assault.

"During this assault, not one school employee was there to help him. It was up to a 10-year-old boy and a mother who was there to pick up her own child to come to his aid," she said. "Our task is to create a safe learning environment, and it lies with all of us."

District officials are seeking up to $440 million in new funding - from state and local sources along with labor concessions - to restore some of the previous cuts and begin enhancing academic programs.

Council members have voiced support for the district, but there is little consensus on how much they will provide or where the money will come from. Those answers will likely not come until the city passes its budget, which is due by June 30.