Six-year-old Madeline Church knew why she sat in the stuffy auditorium of Meredith Elementary School, a handmade sign taped to her white T-shirt, listening to a whole lot of grown-ups make speeches.
"They want to take away money for schools," Madeline said, swinging her legs against her wooden chair. (The sign, which she carefully wrote herself, read, "Don't balence the bugit on my back!")
The Meredith first grader, her parents, and about 200 others went to the South Philadelphia school for a hearing on the Philadelphia School District's 2011-12 budget, the first in a series to be held citywide. They waved signs, made speeches, and demanded answers from officials.
Parents, teachers and community members said they did not like the district's $2.8 billion budget, which contains more than $629 million in cuts - including the total elimination of full-day kindergarten, slashing school discretionary funds by an average of 30 percent, and losing more than 3,000 jobs.
District chief financial officer Michael Masch told the crowd that unprecedented cuts in state funding, combined with the loss of federal stimulus money, forced Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her staff to make painful trims.
No one wants to make these cuts, Masch said, "but we are legally bound to balance this budget."
Nicole Hagedorn, a parent whose son is enrolled in Meredith in the fall, was visibly upset.
"This makes me so angry," Hagedorn said. "I don't know what to do. How can you do this? How can this be going on?"
Hagedorn said she had other options, but believed in public school and wanted to send her child to Meredith, a K-8 school. "It's too late to enroll him elsewhere and that's frustrating, but the cuts will impact others even more," she said.
"I don't know how the working families of this city are going to function if their small kids are only in school for three hours," Hagedorn said.
Many in the crowd questioned the district's spending and its transparency, and said they were outraged that certain cuts are on the table at all.
Kristin Luebbert, who teaches at Bache-Martin Elementary in Fairmount, said she believed the district should reconsider its trims to kindergarten and to early childhood education, where about 1,000 spots would be lost and entire programs shut.
"If we can help our children when they come in at 4, 5, and 6 years old, we're not going to need so many placements in alternative schools down the line," Luebbert said.
Gerald Wright, a parent of children at Constitution High and J.S. Jenks Elementary, said the public needed to be more involved in how the district spent its money, not just in times of crisis.
"If you're going to open up the teachers' contract, you've got to open up every single contract that the district has," said Wright, of the group Parents United for Public Education.
Masch said there would be "millions and millions of dollars in contract cuts" and said the district would do "a better job of presenting information on contracts. We hear you. There needs to be more accountability."
Parent Silvia LeBlanc, whose son is in kindergarten at Meredith, a high-performing school, said that it was tough to hear about cuts to students when she knew that Ackerman, who was not in attendance, made nearly $350,000 annually.
"We need to get our own house in order," LeBlanc said, earning applause from the crowd.
"You can't hurt our children like this," a parent testified. "Where is our superintendent of schools tonight?"
Community member Allan Wong said he worried about cuts to transportation. The district is proposing saving $38 million by wiping out yellow school buses and public transportation subsidies for all regular education and nonpublic students.
Anne Gemmell, parent of three Meredith students and a former teacher, said the district should not be allocating extra funds to so-called Renaissance schools.
Ackerman's Imagine 2014 strategic plan created the Renaissance initiative, which takes low-performing schools and either gives them to charters or keeps them as Promise Academies, with longer school days and years and extra funding.
"I feel like that's an experiment in difficult times," Gemmell said.
Longtime Meredith teacher Ken Derstine said he worried that cuts to district schools and a rise in charters would create "a form of segregation - not by race, but by class."
Masch - who said that if extra funding surfaces full-day kindergarten will be restored - urged the audience not to despair.
"Organize. That is the way we can build a better future for our city and our kids."