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Education Advocates 'Occupy' Harrisburg

Courtesy Good Jobs Healthy Communities

Public education advocates with the group Good Jobs Healthy Communities gathered outside the former William Penn School in Harrisburg Wednesday morning, as part of a week-long “occupation” of Pennsylvania’s capital city.

The vocational and alternative high school was closed by the school district in 2010 due to a lack of funds to upgrade the deteriorating structure. Classes were relocated to other buildings in the district.

Debbie Srogi, whose 9-year-old son Aiden attends Whittier Elementary School in Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Heights neighborhood, said the shuttered school is a symbol of the state’s continued disinvestment in public education.

She and other activists with Good Jobs Healthy Communities and the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, or AROS, are calling on legislators to pass a budget that increases funding for public education. Srogi said she agrees with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf that the best way to get there is to put a severance tax on companies drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation.

“The gas isn’t going anywhere,” Srogi said. “That’s a resource we have – I’m not a big fracker, I’m not into that – but if we have it, let’s use it. Let’s fund those schools.”

Srogi said her son has felt the effects of education funding cuts since he started kindergarten. She said he’s seen fewer opportunities to pursue art, music and even reading over the last five years.

“He loves library, he loves the library teacher,” Srogi said. “He’s learned that she’s got about four different schools now and he only gets to see her, if he’s lucky, twice a month.”

Activists specifically called out Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner of York County, who according to WHTM-TV in Harrisburg, suggested that the state could stand to lose as many as 18,000 teachers.

“We have 180,000 teachers in the state of Pennsylvania,” the station quoted Wagner as saying. “If we laid off 10 percent of the teachers in the state of Pennsylvania, we’d never miss them.”

Wagner said his comments were taken out of context. He said from his perspective as a businessman, it makes perfect sense to lay off underperforming teachers. But Wagner said under the current system, when budgets are tight, it is newer teachers who get the ax, regardless of performance.

Wagner said activists like Srogi “drank the Kool-aid” fed to them by the Pennsylvania State Educator’s Association.

“They just think that the PSEA is the best thing to happen, Wagner said. “The bottom line is, and I want to reiterate this, we are for good teachers, but the current system protects bad teachers.”

Srogi maintains that Wagner is “out of touch” with the average Pennsylvanian. Her group planned to protest at Wagner’s York office Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Wolf has invited Republican lawmakers to his office Wednesday afternoon to restart budget negotiations. On Tuesday, Wolf vetoed the Republican-crafted budget wholesale, saying it did not address any of his priorities – namely, increased education funding and a natural gas severance tax – and included a “huge deficit.”

Wagner said the Republican budget proposal contained $500 million in increased education funding, and that the $1 billion the governor is asking for is simply not needed.

“We have a system that needs reform and needs improvement, but we just keep throwing money at it, and that’s what the governor wants to do,” Wagner said.

Srogi said she supports Wolf’s decision to veto the budget.

“They’re saying … Wolf won’t work with us,” Srogi said. “I think what it came down to is they were going to continue with Corbett’s budget, they wanted to continue with Corbett’s agenda, and Wolf refuses to allow (that) agenda to continue, because it’s an unhealthy agenda for Pennsylvania, period.”

Advocates with AROS have been traveling across Pennsylvania over the last several weeks to raise awareness about issues related to education funding.

Correction: An earlier version of the story misidentified the group occupying Harrisburg this week as the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools. Good Jobs Health Communities is the group that staged Tuesday’s protests at William Penn School and state Sen. Scott Wagner’s Office, as well as the weeklong occupation of the capital.