HARRISBURG -- With state aid for public schools being discussed behind the Capitol's closed doors and a second straight year of large-scale layoffs looming, hundreds of educators, let-go teachers and parents packed the rotunda Wednesday at a raucous union rally to protest Gov. Tom Corbett's budget cuts.
Speaker after speaker aimed their wrath at the Republican governor as they bemoaned continuing furloughs of teachers and support staff, growing class sizes, and the elimination of tutoring, physical education, arts and other programs— possibly even kindergarten.
Demonstrators wearing pink T-shirts that said “Gov. Corbett gave me a pink slip’’ were scattered throughout the crowd.
“Mr. Governor, the question is this: Did you lie during your campaign to the voters of Pennsylvania, or did you turn your back on their children?’’ asked Bryan Sanguinito, a music teacher who is among more than 300 school employees who are losing their jobs in the Reading School District.
Ira Schneider, a fourth-grade teacher who was one of 150 employees furloughed by the York City School District, said the layoffs could flood the job market with veteran teachers, forcing new teachers to leave the state for work, and push experienced educators to leave the field altogether.
“It’s time to do what we all know is the right thing to do — put the money back into the education budget and provide our students with (the) well-rounded, thorough education they deserved. Their future and ours depends on it,’’ said Schneider, a teacher for 11 years.
In a radio interview Wednesday morning, Corbett, who campaigned on a pledge not to raise taxes and to push alternatives to public schools, said the economy is still recovering from a recession and is creating a difficult budget situation that nobody likes.
“There are an infinite number of requests for money and needs for money, but a finite amount of money,’’ Corbett said on IQ106.9-FM in Philadelphia. ``And you have to make tough decisions, and nobody really likes them. Everybody would like to have more money for their project, but they’re never willing to say, `Well, what project will you take it from?’’’
The rally, organized by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, coincided with private budget talks between the governor and leaders of the GOP legislative majority this week. The discussions, to which Democrats have not been invited, are focused in part on how far the school aid cuts Corbett has proposed for the budget year starting July 1 should be rolled back.
Negotiations on a $27 billion-plus budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 are moving slowly as Corbett tries to tamp down the Legislature’s spending demands in favor of putting money in reserve to prepare for spiraling public employee pension costs.
Corbett is also pressing lawmakers to take action on a range of his priorities in the limited time they have left this month before they leave Harrisburg for the summer.
Perhaps the most controversial of those priorities is a $1.7 billion, 25-year tax credit beginning in 2017 to foster a petrochemical industry fueled by the state’s bountiful reservoir of natural gas. It would be the largest financial incentive package in the state’s history, lawmakers say, and is being panned by critics as corporate welfare.
“There’s a give and take; there’s a little bit of push and shove,’’ said House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, after meeting privately with other top Republican lawmakers. ``We’re just backing up a step and reassessing what we can do, what the governor needs to do or what he needs to complete a budget.’’
That aside, the sides are agreed on a no-new-taxes budget that cuts taxes by $275 million for businesses and eliminates a $150 million welfare cash benefit for nearly 70,000 adults who cannot work temporarily because of a disability or are seeking Social Security disability benefits.
State aid for public schools in 2011-12, Corbett’s first budget year, shrank by about $860 million, or more than 10 percent. Corbett’s budget plan for next year would hold most school aid relatively flat, but eliminate a $100 million grant program that helps pay for full-day kindergarten. In addition to restoring that, lawmakers are seeking to add $50 million for an as-yet undefined group of so-called distressed school districts.
With cuts in state aid piling onto stagnant local tax revenue and rising costs, some lawmakers worry that the state will be faced with a wave of school districts in Pennsylvania’s struggling small cities that are unable to open their doors this year or next.