Several thousand protest Philly school cuts, 14 arrested

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Members of the service Employees International Union Local 32BJ joined other blue collar union members of the School District of Philadelphia in a noon protest march up N. Broad St. to the School Administration Building Wednesday, May 23, 2012 where a rally was held. When members were denied entrance to the Administration Building they marched back down N. Broad St where 14 protesters staged a sit-in at the intersection of Broad and Race St and were later arrested. ( Clem Murray / Staff Photographer )

Updated at 2:20 p.m.

Several thousand blue collar union members marched through Center City today, snarling traffic in a midday protest against planned cuts and layoffs by the Philadelphia School District.

After marching from the Municipal Services Building across from City Hall to the School District  headquarters on North Broad Street, scores of the protesters retraced their steps and sat down at Broad and Race Streets.

Fourteen people, including union officials, were arrested for blocking traffic.

"Anyone who stays will be arrested," a police official warned, and a cheer went up as the 14 refused to budge.

"Save our schools!" the crowd shouted.  "Save our schools!"

Among those taken into custody was George Ricchezza, head of the union 32BJ SEIU.

During the march, the union members followed a Teamsters Union tractor trailer as it blew its air horn.

A sea of purple shirts reflected membership in SEIU, 32BJ, the union that represents district bus drivers, cleaners, building engineers and other blue-collar workers.

District officials have sent layoff notices to every member - over 2,000 workers - of 32BJ.  The district, teetering on the brink of financial insolvency, says it does not want to lay off the workers but must negotiate $50 million in savings.  Union officials fear the jobs will be privatized. The workers' contract requires a full year's notice before layoffs; pink slips started to go out last September.

The rally is part of a statewide protest of the "dismantling of public education by Gov. Corbett and the School Reform Commission," union officials said.

Shannon Lane, a bus aide for 16 years, faces being laid off at the end of the year. "We're defending public schools," she said. "We think it's unconscionable that wealthy corporations aren't being taxed fairly, and public schools are being cut.

"This is privatization. Children will lose."

Maintenance worker Steve Seibert, a 12-year disctrict veteran. is worried about his paycheck and benefits. His 10-year-old son is paralyzed and needs constant care. "I need medical coverage," Seibert said. "I don't want to go on the system. I've got pride in myself. I want to work."

City Councilman Bobby Henon said he stood with the workers. "There are all-out attempts to privatize municipal governments and school districts," he said. "What's next? Privatizing our children?"

Henon was one of several councilpeople who joined the marchers.  The others were Councilman Wilson Goode, Councilman Dennis O'Brien, Councilman Mark Squilla and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.  Teachers' union president Jerry Jordan was also on hand, and addressed the crowd.

"Don't think that you're out here by yourself," Jordan said.  "You're not.  You're not!"

Building engineer Ernie Bennett energized an already-frenzied crowd.

"We didn't create this deficit," Bennett shouted, motioning to district headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.  "We should not be held accountable for the mismanagement of these people in here."

At Bennett's urging, the crowd faced headquarters.

"Shame on you," they shouted.  "Shame on you!"

The district is in the middle of massive upheaval, with a planned overhaul of the way schools are organized and run under discussion.  District officials have said they want to dramatically shrink central operations and place schools in "achievement networks" run either by district staff who have contracts with the SRC or outside entities such as universities or charter organizations. That plan has drawn criticism, especially from district employees.

Union leaders say they do not intend to disrupt students' rides home from school, but the district has warned that delays are possible.


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