Danza decries Philly SD budget cuts

An actor-turned-teacher, two union officials and a state senator gathered on the steps of the Philadelphia School District’s headquarters Thursday to send a message — the budget cuts have got to stop.

Tony Danza, who spent a year as an English teacher at Northeast High for a reality show, has said the budget cuts have really affected the school — both in terms of capacity and morale.

“At Northeast, we lost shop teachers, art teachers,” Danza said at a news conference.  “That sends a message to the kids that they really don’t matter.”

Danza is in town for a fundraiser he’s organized — a students-versus-teachers talent show to benefit Northeast.  

He said he was particularly struck by cuts to school nurses.  The district has laid off dozens.

Tracie White was laid off twice, first in June from Overbrook High, then after she was recalled, in December from Alcorn Elementary.

Nurses, she said, help keep schools running.

They “do so much for the children that parents and the general population don’t know about,” White said — not just handing out medication, but conducting health screenings, working with counselors on student behavior plans, serving as a listening ear for students.

Many public schools lack full-time nurses and police officers now. In schools without nurses, secretaries, aides, principals and others dispense medication; the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has filed a complaint with the state over the issue.

“I am seriously concerned for our children,” said White.

State Senator Mike Stack (D., Phila.) laid much of the blame at the feet of Gov. Corbett, who has introduced sharp cuts to districts across the state.

“I don’t see where you cut and cut without ending up with a big problem,” Stack said.

Still, he said some of the responsbility for the district’s current straits is borne by the School Reform Commission, which runs the district.

“The only way that I can describe the last two years in our school district is one word — turmoil,” Stack said. “I think the SRC could have handled the situation better.  A lot better.”

The current SRC is a mostly-new panel, with four out of five members appointed since September.  Stack said he’s had conversations with current SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos, who, he said, “understands we can’t go on like this.”

The district is teetering on the brink of financial insolvency, with $38.8 million left to cut by June and a gap of more than $269 million on top of that for next fiscal year.

It has a new, temporary chief recovery officer to help make cuts and restrucutre the district’s operations.  The SRC has said it wants to decentralize, with more autonomy for schools.

PFT president Jerry Jordan underscored that things must change.

“Our children can’t afford to more years of this,” Jordan said of budget cuts.

Jerry Oleksiak, a vice president of the Pennsylvania Education Association, said it was hard to fathom that districts across the state are in such tough spots.  Chester-Upland schools are struggling to keep their doors open through the end of the school year.

“Can you imagine that?  In America?  That this happening?” asked Oleksiak.
He urged citizens to take action, to let the governor know he must restore education funding.

“I want to ask the citizens of the commonwealth, are you ready?  Are you ready to have your voices heard?’” Oleksiak asked.

If you’re interested in going to the Danza show: it’s open to the public and starts at 6 p.m. tonight.  It’s in the Northeast High auditorium, Cottman and Algon Avenues.