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Passionate Crowd Discusses School District's Money Woes

Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church hosted the School Reform Commission and other officials for a series of speeches and discussions.

officials Tuesday fielded a series of prepared questions that focused on low student attendance, deficits and youth violence at an organized town hall meeting meant to address the district's budget situation.

“One of the biggest concerns parents have are that the schools are not safe,” School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos said at the crowded meeting at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. “Nothing is causing the school district to lose more students than safety.”

The school district has about 50,000 fewer students than it did 12 years ago, and Ramos, in his speech, cited a Pew study that said Philadelphia parents rank safety as a top concern and give poor ratings to the schools’ performance in this area.

Meanwhile, the district is , a position for which about 30 applications were received and about 10 interviews conducted, Ramos said. The SRC hopes to make an offer in July and have a new superintendent by September, but there is no hard deadline.

“If we don’t find the person that we firmly believe is the right person for our school district to serve our children now, we will continue the search,” Ramos said.

Ramos and Tom Knudsen, chief recovery officer and acting superintendent, both said funding will stay stagnant for the coming year, but said something drastic needs to change to avoid cuts in the future.

Knudsen said it’s crucial the district receive $94 million from Mayor Michael Nutter’s “Actual Value Initiative,” an attempt to overhaul the way property taxes are assessed. Without this money, the coming year’s deficit will stand at $312 million.

“I will tell you that is not a sustainable number,” Knudsen said. “We will have a great deal of difficulty going forward. And the problem is that one of the solutions is to borrow, and if we borrow, we are just burrowing ourselves into the dirt.”

The school district’s shortfall was about $700 million in the fall and is about $25 million now, Knudsen said, explaining that the gap will be closed when the city receives $250 million owed by taxpayers.

“You’re going to hear a lot from me in the next few weeks as we reach out into the community and say, ‘Please pay your bill. It’s going to help the kids get an education next year,’” Knudsen said.

Helen Gym, the co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, passionately contested his words during her turn at the mic. Her words drew loud cheers and applause.

“Mr. Knudsen, with all due respect, when you ask us to pay our bill—we’ve been paying our bill,” she said, chiding the school district for having to lay off teachers and close buildings, even though the proposed budget for 2012-13 is $2.5 billion.

“Haven’t we been here before?” she said, comparing the city’s failed experiment with education management organizations, or EMOs, to the recent $1.4 million deal with Boston Consulting Group—an effort to reform the busted system with the help of the management firm.

EMOs, she added, are “on the trash heap of education reform history.”

The evening began with a performance by four gospel singers, followed by a prayer.

The Rev. Jerome Glover told the audience that he hoped those outside of his faith were not offended that this meeting was held in a religious center.

“Even though we have serious concerns with how the leadership is handling what is going on, we are not inviting anyone into our house to attack them,” Glover said.

After speeches, the audience was divided into groups to separate rooms where they brainstormed their ideas about mending the system. SRC has been hosting such events over the past year, but there are always parents present who are skeptical as to whether the SRC takes their opinions into consideration.

Similar skepticism was reflected in a speech by Joi Grant, a 10th grader at Bodine High School who asked for more transparency in how school officials are selected. She had the audience cheering so loudly that she became inaudible after she asked, “Is our school district becoming a business?” 

Someone in the audience yelled, “Finally somebody’s making sense,” in the middle of Grant’s talk, which closed with a request that the audience join her in saying, “Legacy. I am what my ancestors dreamt about. I stand on the shoulders of those before me.” 

This message was related in many ways to a statement made earlier by Penny Nixon, the chief academic officer of the school district: Failure to improve the system disproportionally burdens black and Latino children, as well as those with disabilities, those learning English and those in poverty.

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