By Hilary Russ
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Hundreds of teachers in Philadelphia voiced their outrage on Thursday at proposed pay and benefit cuts as public school officials demanded $133 million in concessions from employees because of a financial crisis.
With the teachers' labor contract due to expire on August 31 and school set to start about a week after that, the district and union leaders are still far apart on terms, according to George Jackson, spokesman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Teachers are being asked to take salary cuts of between 5 and 13 percent next year and to pay more for health coverage.
More than 200 teachers held a march and then rallied outside the school board offices on Thursday to protest the demands.
Teacher Darcel McClen expressed disappointment that she has had to spend $1,000 of her own money on classroom supplies and taught 30 kindergartners without a classroom aide last year.
McClen, who took a pay cut to switch careers and become a teacher nine years ago, makes about $56,000 a year and is facing a 13 percent pay cut.
"It's like we're not appreciated," she said. "It's an awful feeling."
Scott Knoflicek, a middle school science teacher protesting with his two young daughters in tow, said he goes dumpster diving for the bottles, cans, furniture and other supplies he needs to teach his lab classes.
Because of the budget crisis driven by a weak economy and falling enrollment in traditional schools, the school district had to shutter 30 schools over the past two years. In June, it laid off about 3,800 teachers, assistant principals, aides and other staffers to close a $304 million shortfall. Pension benefits are set at by the state and are not an issue in the local negotiations.
The long-brewing financial crisis for Philadelphia's school system reached a crescendo earlier this month when Superintendent William Hite threatened to delay the start of the school year because the district had so few remaining employees.
A last-minute $50 million loan from the city is expected to allow Hite to rehire about 1,000 employees and allow the schools to reopen on-time on September 9.
STUDENTS FLEE PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Urban school systems across the United States have been hammered by reductions in state aid since the 2007-09 recession. In many states, the level of aid still hasn't returned to pre-recession levels.
The rapid growth of charter schools has compounded the problem, as students flee traditional public school systems and take a share of state funds with them.
Philadelphia has hemorrhaged students. In 2008, just 16 percent of pupils were enrolled in charter schools. But for the 2013-2014 school year, about 62,000 - or more than a third - of Philadelphia's 198,000 students will attend one of about 80 charter schools, according to Moody's Investors Service.
When school starts, Philadelphia will have about 134,000 students in 212 public schools, according to Fernando Gallard, spokesman for the district.
"We are at the (negotiating) table every day," he said. "We hope it's a positive result." He declined to provide further details on the status of talks.
Jackson, the teachers' union spokesman, would not say whether members were prepared to strike if no agreement is reached.
"We're planning to continue negotiations and work toward a contract that's good for the our schools, our students, our members and the school district," he said.
In Chicago, teachers walked off the job for eight days at the start of the school year in 2012. It was the city's first teachers' strike in a quarter of a century, spurred on by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's drive for sweeping education reforms as their contract was about to run out.
Pennsylvania has played a role in overseeing Philadelphia's school district since 2001, when the state established a school reform commission (SRC) for the district. Three of its five members are appointed by the governor and two others by the mayor, with no elected members.
The city has a population of about 1.5 million, down from a peak of more than 2 million in the 1950s. Its median family income of about $37,000 is well below the state and national average.
(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Tiziana Barghini and Cynthia Osterman)