WE HAVE been hearing a lot about "shared sacrifice" these days. The idea is an appealing one: everyone should pitch in to do their fair share and not let the burden fall on the shoulders of a few.
Philadelphia School District employees - teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians, and secretaries - have been told by the leadership of the city and the school district that it is their turn to share in the sacrifice needed to dig the district out from under a massive deficit.
The question is: With whom are they being asked to share this sacrifice?
Last year, under threat of having its entire workforce outsourced, 2,700 school district custodians signed a contract which actually has them, the lowest paid workers in the district, making bi-weekly contributions back to the district. Thus, custodians are helping to pay the $300,000 salary of Superintendent William Hite and those of the top-tier staffers whose salaries were substantially increased in one of his first official acts, some as much as 49 percent. They have also contributing to the $25,000 monthly fee of former consultant Thomas Knudsen, whose original six-month consulting contract somehow stretched into thirteen.
Now it's time for the rest of the district workers to step up, the district chides, to share in the painful sacrifices by giving back over $130 million in wages and benefits. Of course, school employees, along with their students, have felt the pain inflicted by the School Reform Commission and its parade of disastrous superintendents and CEOs for over ten years. They have had to endure the fallout of financial mismanagement, increased testing and test-prep classes that push aside music and art, ever-changing curricula in math and reading, and the dismissals of entire faculties - without cause - under the guise of "turning around" schools.
So who will share in the sacrifice?
The city? Despite the testimony of dozens of parents and community leaders earlier this month, there is little indication that City Council will come up with the $60 million that the district has requested.
The state? Even if Governor Corbett, who never met an education budget he couldn't slash, came up with the $120 million that the district is asking for, it wouldn't come close to an evenly shared sacrifice: each one of the district's 15,00 workers would be ponying up $8,667, compared to $9.60 from each of the state's 12.5 million residents.
Is the business community - which benefits from the system that produces a job-ready work force - willing to share in the sacrifice?
How have the district's employees come to be such easy marks for rescuing a perpetually mismanaged organization? Are teachers the only ones who benefit from a thriving public-school system? There is a reason we no longer have schools only for the rich or for males or for wealthy landowners. We benefit, both financially and culturally, by living in an educated society. We understand that a democracy cannot survive without an educated electorate.
The truth is that those at the bottom of the district's pay scale have been holding it together for years. It is news to no one that Philadelphia's teachers (who make much less than their suburban counterparts) shell out hundreds of dollars of their own money each year for books and supplies, including copy paper. (A colleague of mine actually got a carton of paper as a birthday present from her mother last year.)
It might be understandable if teachers were responsible for the financial hole that the district's leaders have dug, but there has never been a teacher on the School Reform Commission, and the increasingly top-down administration gives them little opportunity to have a say in most academic or financial decisions.
There are a number of ways to raise money for Philadelphia's public schools:
* Pass the Use and Occupancy Tax reform bill proposed by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, which would raise as much as $80 million by increasing the rate on large corporate landlords.
* Step up collections from tax delinquents.
* Recover money from the banks who made millions on bad interest swaps with the city and the school district
* Stop the exponential growth of charter schools.
No one can deny the personal sacrifices that teachers, nurses, librarians, counselors and secretaries make every day for their students - in time and dedication, in taking on more responsibilities when support staff is laid off, in providing a safe haven for children who have no other. Should they be asked to carry the lion's share of the financial sacrifice, too?