Written by Emily Mullins
A new school year is rapidly approaching, but budget cuts, school closures, and faculty layoffs have the people of Philadelphia concerned about the safety and well-being of incoming students. The Rev. Dwayne Royster, senior pastor of Philadelphia's Living Water United Church of Christ, is leading the charge to secure appropriate funding and ensure that all students receive the supervision, guidance and resources they need for a safe and effective school year.
"We cannot allow schools to open Sept. 9 without sufficient staffing in all buildings," said Royster. "We would be irresponsible faith leaders and parents if we let that happen."
Royster is also the executive director of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER), a coalition of 41 churches, including six UCC congregations, that works for social justice throughout the region. POWER has held rallies, vigils and marches, and organized meetings with school and government leadership to push for funding to decrease the school system's $304-million deficit and to rehire some of the nearly 4,000 school employees who were laid off earlier this year. If a solution is not reached in time to open schools on Sept. 9, the group is encouraging parents and the district's 140,000 students to participate in a school boycott.
On Aug. 16, Philadelphia city officials pledged to borrow $50 million for the school district, which will allow the school system to rehire 1,000 school employees, and also offer some extracurricular activities and avoid having to combine different grades into a single classroom. But groups like POWER question where this money will come from and if it will be enough to provide proper staffing to ensure the safety of all students.
"POWER is waiting to hear what the staffing will be for the schools," Royster said. "If schools are at full staffing then we will not boycott. However, if schools are not staffed to provide a quality and safe education to every child in the school system, we will have to call for the boycott."
At the end of last school year, 24 local schools were closed and some were merged together. One of Royster's biggest concerns is that combining some of the schools, which have been rivals for decades, compromises the safety of students and creates opportunities for violence. Among other concerns is the lack of guidance counselors, who play integral roles in helping students transition into new environments and help graduating seniors submit college applications.
"They are merging different schools with different cultures without appropriate supervision," Royster said. "They think it's going to be OK, but it's just not that way. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods and people are really tied to that identity."
To help close the district's deficit, school officials had asked for $180 million in emergency aid earlier this year, most of which is dependent on concessions by the teacher's union, including a 10-percent pay cut for teachers. But only $45 million has so far been approved by the state, and that will not be passed along to the school district until Republican Governor Tom Corbett feels that sufficient reforms have taken place.
POWER will hold meetings this week to decide next steps and will pay close attention to the actions of school and government leadership. It the boycott comes to fruition, Living Water UCC and other local congregations will likely provide a safe place for students to spend the time that should be spent in school.
"We don't want a boycott, and we are hoping not to get there," Royster said. "But if it comes to pass, it comes to pass."