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Despite Protest, School Reform Commission Passes Budget

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By Ben Simmoneau, Mike DeNardo and Elizabeth Hur

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Despite opposition from hundreds of protesters gathered in and outside of the Philadelphia School District Headquarters, the School Reform Commission voted unanimously Thursday and passed a budget for the next school year.

The protestors were angry because they say the $2.5 billion budget shortchanges students; it simply is not enough, they argue, to educate the city’s children.

The district says it’s doing what it can with what it has. State budget cuts and the end of additional federal stimulus dollars have forced hundreds of millions in cuts the last two years.

“This budget is taking too much out of classrooms, and that is not good for the children of Philadelphia,” said teachers’ union president Jerry Jordan. “We are certainly asking the state to do more.”

But asking for more from Harrisburg still seems somewhat optimistic. Making matters worse, the district’s budget includes a $218 million gap – which will likely be filled by borrowing – and relies on an additional $94 million from the city of Philadelphia through a city-wide property tax reassessment.

That $94 million figure is uncertain at best.

“I believe there will be additional funding for the school district. How much and in what matter is not clear yet,” City Council President Darrell Clarke said after Thursday morning’s council session. “The thing that is mind boggling to me even as we stand here today is that the state continues to not be part of the equation.”

SRC Chairman, Pedro Ramos responded, “It’s absurd for anyone in the political sphere or knowledgeable in the civic-sphere to suggest that we’re going to be more successful in Harrisburg than locally. Here we have a mayor who decided to lead and said he’s going to fix a broken system. We made it clear the school budgets are at bare bones. I think City Council now has a responsibility to follow. It’s hard to follow but in this case, they really need to follow the mayor’s leadership.”

Earlier in the day, Council heard an earful from dozens of members of one of the school district’s blue collar unions, 32 BJ, of the Service Employees International Union. All 2,700 of those union members – members that include custodians and non-teaching classroom aides – could lose their jobs to layoffs, as the district might privatize the services they provide.

“It’s a nightmare for me as well as my colleagues,” said 32 BJ member and district building engineer Ernie Bennett. “We believe we can resolve this without anybody being laid off.”

Ramos concluded, “It was an unpleasant budget it was not a pleasant meeting but the positive part of that is, I will take that kind of passion that you saw in that room over indifference any day of the week.”

SRC officials also noted, the approved spending plan does not include any school closings.

Officials say the district’s re-organization plan to close 64 schools over five years will be finalized in the coming year with input from the public. The open union talks are also set to continue as scheduled.

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