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Philadelphia Hunger Strike Over Staff Cuts Ends, Temporarily

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With a $304 million deficit, the Philadelphia school district has been looking for as much money as possible. Pennsylvania's governor, Tom Corbett, has just signed off on a cash infusion of over $140 million, but that didn't include a higher excise tax on cigarettes that could have meant tens of millions more.

The district had planned to make cuts to its fine arts programs, in addition to cutting around 1,200 support staff. Staff members and parents organized in a hunger strike in protest, noting the pivotal role of support staff in school safety. Many others soon joined. On day 12, 15 politicians at all levels joined in a 24-hour hunger strike, including Congressman Robert Brady, a Democrat.

The new budget deal ended that protest yesterday afternoon, however, after 15 days of consuming only water. Protestors believe that the new state allocations will allow safety workers to be rehired. The initial layoff notices went out to over 3,700 people, though, and that was only expected to save $215 million. There are still a number of holes in the district budget, and no specific commitments have been made. While some staff rehires are likely, it's still anyone's guess how many positions will be restored.

There's not a very diplomatic way to describe Philadelphia's approach to district management. But a pattern of school climate problems seems to validate some of the claims of the striking safety workers: Reports of botched handling of racial and ethnic conflicts, and of a failed zero-tolerance policy. Violence problems became so bad that the district formed a commission designed to reduce "persistently dangerous" schools. No one's denying the benefit of support staff, but cuts still linger.

Corbett, a Republican, wants more money to come from union concessions. A poll in the June 19 edition of Philadelphia City Paper suggests that Corbett has little to lose by going after the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. And if the union doesn't budge on benefits, the governor gets an opening to frame the budget as a battle between union largesse and student safety. (Spoiler alert.)

If the safety workers don't see restorations, though, the fasting is likely to resume.

Edit: The hunger strike was started by both parents and staff members.

Photo: Demonstrators protest outside the Philadelphia school district headquarters in late May. The district currently has a $304 million shortfall, although the state of Pennsylvania has pledged some aid. —Matt Rourke/AP

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