For more than four restless hours Thursday, anger at Philadelphia School District leaders simmered, at times boiling over.
At a School Reform Commission meeting and at a union rally held before the meeting, teachers, parents, and community members expressed anger at the district's planned conversion of three schools into charters, at its handing over substitute-teaching services to a company that has underperformed, at its nurse staffing levels, and at its overcrowding in some schools.
"Are you deliberately trying to destroy public education in Philadelphia, or are you just grossly incompetent?" retired teacher and librarian Deborah Grill asked leaders.
"You continue to mismanage our district with dishonesty and incompetence," Peg Devine, the nurse at Lincoln High, charged.
"This is personal for me," said an emotional Renita Brown, parent of a child at Cooke Elementary, one of the schools slated to be converted into a charter. "Our children are not cattle."
At one point, an amplifier blew and the microphones in the SRC auditorium went out. The restless audience filled the silence with a chant.
"Hite must go! Hite must go!" they shouted, referring to Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.
Much of the anger came over a plan Hite announced earlier this month that would, he said, move 15,000 students into better schools. The plan calls for three charter conversions, two school closures, grade changes in other buildings, and opening two new schools.
There was no mention of the new schools, but widespread frustration with the district's process for charter conversion. Last year, it allowed parents in schools it had targeted as failing to vote on whether they wanted to become charters; both overwhelmingly chose to remain district schools.
This year, Hite said, he was making the call on his own, but relying on parents to serve on committees to help select charter providers.
Kenya Nation, parent of two children at Wister Elementary, one of the schools chosen for conversion, said she's not anti-charter.
"But I'm not for you taking my vote away," Nation said at a pre-meeting rally sponsored by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers attended by about 100.
Parents and teachers at Wister and at Huey and Cooke, the other schools targeted for conversion, said they didn't understand why the district couldn't take the money it was planning on giving to a charter operator and investing it into resources for the schools it has starved for years.
Charlette Walker, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade literacy at Cooke, wondered why long-postponed repairs at the school were now suddenly being done.
"Our kids and our teachers weren't good enough to live in a clean school?" Walker asked.
PFT president Jerry Jordan, testifying before the SRC, accused the district of creating "anger in our neighborhoods and chaos in our schools."
Jordan was one of many speakers who blasted the School District for hiring Source4Teachers, a firm awarded a $34 million contract this spring to handle substitute-teaching services the district said it could not manage properly itself.
On the district's watch, about 60 percent of substitute jobs were filled daily; Source4Teachers has mustered about 20 percent. It promised a fill rate of 75 percent on Day 1.
"You know how to break a contract, so break this one," retired teacher Karel Kilimnik said, referring to the SRC's move last year to break the teachers' contract. (The legality of that vote is now being considered by the state Supreme Court.)
The lack of school nurses in some district buildings was also a frequently aired topic. Three schools have no coverage at all this year; 16 have only sporadic check-ins from nurses.
"Nurses are not a want, but a need," said Regina Feighan-Drach, a kindergarten teacher at Key Elementary, where last week a second grader went into cardiac arrest.
The school's nurse, there only two days a week, happened to be on hand and was able to administer CPR.
"You continue to allow the safety of our fragile students to deteriorate," said Devine, the Lincoln High nurse.
Hite and the SRC looked uncomfortable at times during the meeting.
The superintendent noted that several speakers pointed out how the district was failing minority children by attempting to give their traditional public schools to charter companies. But, he said, the school system harmed minority children for years by failing to teach them to adequately read and write, even when it had resources.
"We never had resources!" someone in the audience shouted.
Commissioner Bill Green also spoke out, suggesting that the audience's anger was misdirected and that the district was doing the best it could with the limited funds it has.
"All we can do is allocate the resources we get," Green said. He noted the continuing state budget stalemate, which may cause the school system to run out of cash at the end of the month.