What a $629 million budget gap means to a seventh grader

Hundreds of Philadelphia School District students, parents, and community members converged on Harrisburg today to rail against Gov. Corbett's proposed budget and what it would mean for city schools.

The district, which receives more than half of its funding from state sources, is facing a budget gap of $629 million. Support for Philadelphia schools has cooled considerably since Gov. Rendell's departure - there's a decidedly anti-Philly feeling in Harrisburg these days.

So what exactly would big cuts in education aid mean to you, Cameron Gaillard, seventh grader at Bache-Martin Elementary School?

"They're taking one of our counselors away," said Cameron, 12. "We really need her on our staff. She's an important part of our school."

(The counselor is in her 20s and she really relates to kids, Cameron added.  Next year, he's facing a big decision about where to go to high school, and he needs this counselor to help, he said.  Bache-Martin, a K-8 school of about 400 students, would go from two counselors to one if the current budget passes.)

Cameron and a handful of his classmates appealed directly to state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop (D., Phila.) About a dozen Bache-Martin parents and students traveled to Harrisburg on buses sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.  Most of the Bache-Martin group wore bright yellow t-shirts proudly proclaiming their school affiliation.

School officials have said that the district's projected $629 million budget gap will also mean Bache-Martin loses its assistant principal, student advisor, dean of students, and computer teacher, according to parents. The music teacher will be cut from full-time to three days a week, and the art teacher to two days a week. Two classroom teachers would be lost, and class sizes will increase, too.

Cameron's brother Andre, who's in third grade, plays the drums.  Music means a lot to him, and he's worried about what will happen next year, he said.

"I told the Representative that I don't know how I would continue if there wasn't as much music," said Andre, a very poised 9-year-old.

Bache-Martin parent Jen MacNeill is worried, too.

"As a result of having smaller class sizes, our test scores have gone up," MacNeill said. "When you pack more students into a classroom, learning suffers."

Some students said they told Bishop they were upset that many city schools don't have libraries, but all state prisons do.  They said they don't understand why more is spent on incarcerating prisoners than educating students.

"You see what the priorities are in terms of investment," said Janice Gaillard, Cameron and Andre's mom.  "It's ridiculous."

Christine Carlson, a parent from Greenfield Elementary in Center City, said wanted to ask House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) to visit the school she loves. Earlier this month, Turzai took shots at the district on a WHYY radio show.

"There are some really fine schools in the Philadelphia School District," Carlson said.  "We want him to come visit Greenfield."  And though many city schools aren't up to snuff, why would you hurt them further by taking away financial support, Carlson asked.

Carlson and the 20 or so folks from Greenfield didn't meet with Turzai personally, but left their invitation with a staffer.

"I don't think," she said, "people realize how bad these cuts really are."

(A district spokeswoman told me that students who attended the rally were excused if they had written permission from their principal and their parent or guardian.  The day was considered a civics lesson, said Jamilah Fraser, the spokeswoman.)