Philly schools may not open on time

Superintendent William Hite of the School District of Philadelphia caused quite a stir on Aug. 10. He said that because of the lack of staff, city schools will not be able to open on Sept. 9. He is requesting $50 million from the city of Philadelphia to rehire some 1,000 people, including counselors, assistant principals and school safety staff.

The district has lost over $300 million in annual state funding over several years. It has been forced to close 24 schools and lay off nearly 4,000 people, including all staff who are not teachers or principals. This means no secretaries to send out school assignments to the thousands of students changing schools and no school safety staff to smooth out conflicts in the lunchroom. (Philly.com, Aug. 10)

Recently, the district “found” $33 million in savings to hire one secretary per school, keep open some sports programs, and rehire some art and music teachers for the upcoming year.

Meanwhile, the district is paying up to $1.2 billion in interest rate “swaps” to major banks. The banks claimed these complicated financial instruments would save the district money and reduce risk. Instead, they robbed the schools of funds by locking them into high interest rates just when the markets tanked. Huge banks manipulated the interest rates through their monopoly power over what is known as the Libor index, which is set in London.

The result is a recently uncovered scandal that is thought to have cost hundreds of billions of dollars to borrowers around the world. The Philadelphia School District is one of them, and is threatening to strike back against the banks and sue them for tens of millions. However, none of that money would be available for the upcoming school year. (CityPaper, Aug. 5)

Hite: Squeeze money out of workers and poor

To make up for the massive budget shortfall, Superintendent Hite has pushed for $50 million in new money from the city of Philadelphia, which most expect to come from an increase in the sales tax. Also, Mayor Michael Nutter and others are looking to increase the tax on cigarettes by $2 per pack, for another $45 million. These kinds of taxes hit the poorest the hardest. By contrast, huge corporations like Comcast and Sunoco pay no taxes to the city.

Even with an extra $50 million, the students would still be missing 2,900 workers who are needed to make their education possible. Some extra money — about $45 million — is set to come from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from a forgiven loan from the federal government.

This came through a last-minute budget deal negotiated by Comcast corporate executive David L. Cohen, whose “handshake over the phone” also called for extra funding for the district if the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers would agree to 15 percent pay cuts for all teachers and over $133 million in concessions. “Cohen said Sunday business leaders and [Gov. Tom] Corbett believed that union concessions were a critical element if the district was to obtain additional money from taxpayers.” (philly.com, July 2)

Superintendent Hite, in his declaration that schools may not be able to open on time, also called for over $120 million in concessions from the teachers’ union. Hite is a product of the Broad Foundation, a group founded by billionaire capitalist Eli Broad that seeks to destroy public education. It even publishes an 83-page “School Closure Guide” and champions “corporate education reform.” (philly.com, April 30)

While the district and others look to destroy the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and every other public sector union — city government employees have worked more than four years without a new contract — the struggle for public education continues to grow.

On Aug. 14, UNITE HERE Local 634, the union representing school safety and cafeteria workers who have been laid off, will host a 12-hour “Fast for Safe Schools.” On Aug. 22, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, which includes the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other unions, community organizations and students, will march on Comcast, City Hall and the School Reform Commission, the state-appointed school board of Philadelphia.

On Sept. 1, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract expires. If both sides don’t negotiate a new contract by then, the state can impose one by law on everything but wages and benefits. This could lead to an even greater upsurge of struggle, putting Philadelphia in the center of the movement to protect public education. n