PHILADELPHIA -- Before they start the school year together, the staff at the Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts will grieve: They'll hold a wake of sorts for laid-off colleagues, reviewing a DVD of their photos and recounting their accomplishments, and then they'll head across the street to eat.
Such is life in the beleaguered Philadelphia School District, where the severity of layoffs and school closings have made this latest financial crunch unlike any other in recent memory as students get ready to go back to school.
"There's a sadness. It's a sadness that is deep," said Kensington principal Debora Borges-Carrera.
The layoff notices that went out in June – 20 percent of the district's employees got pink slips – swept out practically every employee aside from teachers and principals: lunchroom aides, secretaries, classroom aides, guidance counselors, librarians, nurses and assistant principals.
A fight between the city and state over funding one of the nation's largest school districts, which serves 190,000 traditional and charter school students, has inspired fasts, rallies and even a threat by the superintendent not to open schools. That fight continues, with pressure now on teachers to accept deep wage cuts, while a pledge by Mayor Michael Nutter to borrow $50 million against future sales tax receipts has prompted the rehiring of some laid-off staff and encouraged the superintendent to open schools Sept. 9, as planned.
In the meantime, parents, teachers and principals are increasingly looking to outside sources of money, such as nonprofit community groups, charities, corporate donors or fundraising drives to pay for staff, tutoring, afterschool programs and other things that the government used to underwrite. Volunteerism is on the rise, and principals are scrimping like never before.
Morale is heavily damaged: Teachers are angry at the smaller paychecks they're being pushed to take, and some parents are questioning whether what's left is worth saving. Those who are politically active in this big Democratic city tend to blame the Republican governor, Tom Corbett, who pushed through deep, budget-balancing cuts in state aid two years ago while seeking to advance the fortunes of private, parochial and privately operated, publicly funded charter schools.
Corbett's budget secretary, Charles Zogby, says the administration has demonstrated its support for schools, but the teachers' union must recognize the district's fiscal realities and make concessions.
Regardless, the steep cuts have left Tomika Anglin disgusted and planning to homeschool her 12-year-old daughter.
"The situation isn't getting better, and the people in charge of making the decisions are not considering what is best for the children," Anglin said. "And if the people in charge are not making the best decisions for the children, I can't let my child be a part of that."
Rebecca Poyourow choked up when thinking about how finances at Cook Wissahickon Elementary School have worsened despite efforts by her and other parents to fundraise, volunteer in afterschool clubs and organize a tutoring program to offset the effects of cuts in state aid a couple of years ago.
"I feel like we're staring into the abyss," Poyourow said. "I thought we could just put our hands in and make it work."
Sabra Townsend hired a lawyer after her son's high school in the Germantown section of the city was closed and he was rejected by the other five schools to which he applied - including the one that was supposed to take children from the closed school.
"I'm sitting here like, `What do you expect me to do?'" Townsend said.
To be sure, many parents haven't followed the debacle and the little they've heard about it hasn't shaken their intent to send their children back to school. When Borges-Carrera asked parents at freshmen orientation day Thursday how many knew there would be no guidance counselors in the school, about half the hands went up.
Josh Rodriguez, a senior at Kensington, said he will miss the guidance counselors, noting that he went to one practically daily for advice on everything from girlfriend problems to homework.
"She was kind of like my mother in the school," Rodriguez said.
Still, Rodriguez said he would try to temper the loss by being a role model for freshmen. It's a theme that Borges-Carrera suggested is emerging: Parents, friends and student leaders such as Rodriguez are stepping up where government is not.
"In the midst of chaos," she said, "there is opportunity."
Earlier on HuffPost:
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)
"I wish to God she had had an m-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out ... and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids," Gohmert said of slain principal Dawn Hochsprung on <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/louie-gohmert-guns_n_2311379.html"><em>Fox News Sunday</em></a>. He argued that shooters often choose schools because they know people will be unarmed.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R)
"If people were armed, not just a police officer, but other school officials that were trained and chose to have a weapon, certainly there would be an opportunity to stop an individual trying to get into the school," he <a href="http://www.wtop.com/610/3162096/Gov-Is-it-time-to-arm-school-officials">told WTOP's "Ask the Governor" show</a> Tuesday, warning that Washington may respond to such a policy with a "knee-jerk reaction."
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) & State Sen. Frank Niceley (R)
Gov. Haslam says he will consider a Tennessee plan to secretly arm and train some teachers, <a href="http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/12/tennessee-armed-teachers.php">TPM reports</a>. The legislation will be introduced by State Sen. Frank Niceley (R) next month. "Say some madman comes in. The first person he would probably try to take out was the resource officer. But if he doesn’t know which teacher has training, then he wouldn’t know which one had [a gun]," Niceley told TPM. "These guys are obviously cowards anyway and if someone starts shooting back, they’re going to take cover, maybe go ahead and commit suicide like most of them have."
Oklahoma State Rep. Mark McCullough (R) & State Sen. Ralph Shortey (R)
State Rep. Mark McCullough (R) <a href="http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/article.aspx?subjectid=336&articleid=20121217_336_0_OKLAHO168827">told the Tulsa World</a> he plans to file legislation that would bring guns into schools, calling their absence "irresponsible." “It is incredibly irresponsible to leave our schools undefended – to allow mad men to kill dozens of innocents when we have a very simple solution available to us to prevent it," he said. "I’ve been considering this proposal for a long time. In light of the savagery on display in Connecticut, I believe it’s an idea whose time has come." Sen. Ralph Shortey (R) told the Tulsa World that teachers should carry concealed weapons at school events. "Allowing teachers and administrators with concealed-carry permits the ability to have weapons at school events would provide both a measure of security for students and a deterrent against attackers," he said.
Florida State Rep. Dennis Baxley (R)
Baxley, who once sponsored Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law, <a href="http://politics.heraldtribune.com/2012/12/17/florida-legislator-allow-guns-in-schools/">told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune </a>that keeping guns out of schools makes them a target for attacks. “We need to be more realistic at looking at this policy," he said. "In our zealousness to protect people from harm we’ve created all these gun-free zones and what we’ve inadvertently done is we’ve made them a target. A helpless target is exactly what a deranged person is looking for where they cannot be stopped.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)
At a Tea Party event Monday night, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/18/rick-perry-guns-in-schools_n_2322185.html">Perry praised a Texas school system that allows some staff to carry concealed weapons to work</a> and encouraged local school districts to make their own policies.
Minnesota State Rep. Tony Cornish (R)
Cornish <a href="http://www.kdlt.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=22736&Itemid=57">plans to introduce legislation that would allow teachers to arm themselves</a>, according to the AP.
Oregon State Rep. Dennis Richardson (R)
In an email <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/oregon-state-rep-dennis-richardson-teacher-guns-stopped-connecticut-shooting_n_2317444.html?ir=Education">obtained by Gawker</a> and excerpted below, Richardson tells three superintendents that he could have saved lives had he been armed and in Sandy Hook on Friday: <blockquote>If I had been a teacher or the principal at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and if the school district did not preclude me from having access to a firearm, either by concealed carry or locked in my desk, most of the murdered children would still be alive, and the gunman would still be dead, and not by suicide. ... [O]ur children's safety depends on having a number of well-trained school employees on every campus who are prepared to defend our children and save their lives?</blockquote>
Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett
"And I'm not so sure -- and I'm sure I'll get mail for this -- I'm not so sure I wouldn't want one person in a school armed, ready for this kind of thing," Bennett, who served as education secretary under Ronald Reagan, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/bill-bennett-education-secretary-connecticut-shooting_n_2311774.html">told <em>Meet the Press</em> Sunday</a>. "The principal lunged at this guy. The school psychologist lunged at the guy. It has to be someone who's trained, responsible. But, my god, if you can prevent this kind of thing, I think you ought to."