Chloe Thomas, a student at J.S. Jenks, plays the violin at last year’s Spring Concert. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Facing a $304 million budget deficit for the 2014 fiscal year, the School District of Philadelphia announced that without further funding from the state or city it will be forced to cut guidance counselors, librarian services, music education, sports, after-school programming and office administration.

Despite the School Reform Commission’s decision to close 23 schools in September, Dr. William R. Hite, superintendent, said that “without additional support from the city and state, we will not be able to support district operations which will have a direct impact on meeting the basic needs of our students.”

The Local asked residents to voice their opinions about the district’s budget and its request for additional funding from the city and the state. The overwhelming response from community members was that regardless of who is to blame for the district’s current financial plight, every child in Pennsylvania has the right to a quality education in a safe environment that includes access to music and art, libraries, counselors, and support systems that help every child reach his or her full potential.

Rebecca Dhondt, a Mt. Airy resident and J.S. Jenks Home and School Association board member, said the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is federal law that states that every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education.

“Is there anyone that can argue this budget would create an appropriate educational environment for the children,” Dhondt said. “I am mystified there is not more outrage about this issue. No money for counselors, paper or textbooks? No lunchtime aides, which means inadequate supervision? How can this even be legal? I hear all the people say the system is broken, and we need to fix it, but not on the backs of our children.”

Susan Whiteman Nordlof, of Mt. Airy, said she was “shocked but not surprised” at the district’s proposed budget cuts.

“Do I think it will become a reality,” Nordlof said. “It’s hard to believe it can. It makes for a situation that sounds literally unable to function at all on a daily basis, let alone deliver any kind of basic education.

“On the other hand, I no way think it’s a total bluff,” said Nordlof, whose daughter attends Masterman High School.

She said that people who don’t have children in district schools may “just tune this [the district’s cuts] out.

“But a city that is ready to give up on even the attempt to provide a decent, basic, well-staffed environment for its children’s education is a city that is saying it’s ready to give up on a whole generation of its future, whether to poverty and neglect or to flight,” said Nordlof, a nurse practitioner at Mt. Airy Pediatrics. “Whether or not you’re a public school parent or a parent at all, if you’re a Philadelphia taxpayer, you ought to be very worried about that.”

Germantown resident Catherine Collins, who has two children at C.W. Henry School, said the district’s current financial nightmare didn’t happen overnight.

“The unwillingness of the Governor, the Pennsylvania legislature, and the leaders of Philadelphia to take responsibility for a situation that we all find ourselves in is shameful,” said Collins, a reference librarian at St. Joseph’s University. “I fear for what will become of our children and this city if our leaders sit by and allow this to happen. And so, I ask them: Do you want Philadelphia to be known as the next Austin or another Detroit”?

Anuj Gupta, a Mt. Airy resident and executive director of Mt. Airy USA, said the proposed budget would effectively dismantle “one of the nation’s largest public school districts.”

“It will tear out the very fabric of our neighborhoods,”Gupta said. “This simply cannot be allowed to happen.”

Ken Weinstein, owner of the Trolley Car Diner in Mt. Airy, agreed with Gupta. He called the proposed budget cuts an attack on everything that is good in the school district.

Weinstein, who founded the Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill Teacher’s Fund five years ago, said the Teacher’s Fund donates $10,000 a year to local public school teachers for educational projects and supplies.

“There is just not enough funding available to make up for this latest round of gut-wrenching cuts,” Weinstein said.

Chestnut Hill resident Bob Previdi agreed and called the district financial dilemma “a very serious situation.”

“People have to come together, and we all have to chip in and deal with the crisis now,” Previdi said. “For too long we have been kicking the can down the road.”

Previdi said he hoped the neighborhood rallies around Jenks.

“Both of our children got a great education there and have been able to attend Masterman, the best school in the state.”

Noreen Spota, of Chestnut Hill, said her daughter also received a great education at J.S. Jenks.

“It was important to my husband and I that she attend schools with cultural diversity,” Spota said. “Also, like so many other parents in the city, there was no way that we could afford elementary and high school tuition totaling over $300,000 and save for her college education at the same time. Every child in this country, regardless of their economic status, has the right to a high quality education.”

Chestnut Hill resident Adam Eyring, whose children attend Jenks, said the quality of the education at J.S. Jenks is “in danger of severely eroding, putting parents in a quandary about the feasibility of living in Chestnut Hill and surrounding neighborhoods due to possibly reduced school options.”

Brett Hart, of Mt. Airy, commented on the disparity in education funding between low income and middle or high income neighborhoods.

“It’s ‘tough luck for you if you’re in the former,” said Hart, executive director of the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory. “We don’t fund our highways like that, so why is it accepted practice for education?

“There is a voice out there that wants us to believe that it’s not about money – that it’s bad teachers, or unions, administration, curriculum, families, values – it’s an exhausting list. And while it is complicated, I can say – from the perspective of a youth-development nonprofit director – that without the cash capital, surely nothing good can begin.”

The Rev. Linda Noonan, co-pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, also commented on the disparities in the Philadelphia area, calling them “shocking, unjust and unethical.”

“All our children deserve to develop mentally, emotionally and physically in safe and enriched schools,” she said.

Tamara Anderson, of Germantown, said research continues to prove how an education rich in art increases critical thinking and evaluation.

“We claim to be teaching our children 21st century skills, yet creativity is the skill being asked for,” said Anderson, whose daughter attends Lingelbach Elementary School. “STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] education is very vital.”

Anderson, a teacher, actor and writer added that the district needs to be audited to make sure it is spending money on necessary items.

As a teacher in the Philadelphia school district, Anderson said she had “seen closets and closets of unused books and supplies.”

Susan Gobreski, executive director of the Education Voters Institute in Pennsylvania, said good quality public schools should be a public priority.

“The reality is that urban renewal and quality education are intertwined,” Gobreski said. “When school quality is diminished, it hurts the communities’ prosperity and vibrancy.”

She added that citizens need to pressure legislatures “to stop paying this issue lip service or jumping on reform bandwagons.”

“We need them to pursue proven initiatives like keeping arts and music programs, community schools, which integrate community programs into the school.

Chestnut Hill resident Julia Reeb, whose daughter used to attend J.S. Jenks, said, “The entire district is a mess.”

“Quite honestly, as a current homeschooling family, I have no intention of jumping back into the mess that is the School District of Philadelphia any time soon.”

Despite facing crippling budget cuts, J.S. Jenks’ principal Mary Lynskey said the school was determined to maintain its diverse enrichment programs.

During a recent school production of “The Sound of Music,” Lynskey told an audience of more than a hundred parents, students and community members that “nothing we started here is going to be lost.”

“We don’t know how we’re gonna do it,” Lynskey said. “We don’t know where we are gonna find the funds, but we will not allow our children to miss out on our JAM [Jenks Art and Music] or FLEX [Foreign Language Experience] programs.”

She said the school has petitioned the school district to change it name from the John Story Jenks School to the John Story Jenks School for the Arts and Sciences.

The School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote on a final budget on May 30.