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Teachers pack union meeting, say no to pay cuts

Philadelphia teachers say no to pay cuts,

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.

"I never thought they would take a bunch of professionals and treat them as non-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 the expired on Saturday. The district is seeking pay cuts of five 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.

About 5,000 union members showed up for the meeting, according to one source inside. The meeting is closed to the press.

"PFT members will not take a five, 10 or 13 percent pay cut," PFT President Jerry Jordan told the crowd.

Before the meeting started, the American Federation of Teachers released a poll, showing that 65 percent of voters are dissatisfied with the way Mayor Nutter has handled public education. The poll was conducted by Guy Molyneux of Hart Research for the PFT. Only 30 percent said they were satisfied with Nutter's work on public education, the poll found.

Nutter has supported the school district's proposals for stark cutbacks. Mark McDonald, the mayor's spokesman, could not be reached immediately for comment.

Among those who showed up for the meeting were laid off teachers and teachers who had been forced 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 School this year.

"My students were devastated," she said. "I had kids crying in my arms."

She's 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 of hers at CAPA that said: Save our futures. Save our schools.

Some employees declined to give their name, 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 who asked not to be named. "I don't know how I can live on what they want to do."

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 hard working, 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 is sinking.

"Every year I've been in the district, it's been worse and worse. Last year was the worst," he said.