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Hunger strikers protest deep cuts to Philadelphia schools

By Daniel Kelley

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Children wrote letters. Parents staged rallies in Pennsylvania. But Earlene Bly, a hotel housekeeper, didn't feel like anyone was listening.

A more dramatic gesture was needed, Bly thought, to protest an austerity budget passed last month that stripped Philadelphia public schools of art and music, nurses and librarians, guidance counselors, assistant principals and hundreds of cafeteria and recess monitors.

So the 46-year-old Bly stopped eating.

Bly, who has a daughter in high school, joined a hunger strike outside Governor Tom Corbett's Philadelphia office to protest the austerity budget. "No one was listening," she said. "We had to do something to get their attention."

Bly and three other protesters fasted for a full week, then turned their campaign over to a new group of activists, who haven't eaten since Monday. Camped out under a tent, wearing red armbands and matching T-shirts, they have drawn considerable attention. Drivers honk at them. Pastors pray with them. Union leader Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation for Teachers, plans to fast for the day Thursday in solidarity.

So far, however, the handful of activists, who include school employees, haven't gotten what they came for: More money for Philadelphia public schools.

Urban school districts across the United States have been struggling for years. Chicago recently approved closing 54 schools. But Philadelphia is in more desperate straits than most. The district has borrowed so much money that it will owe $280 million next year for debt service alone, spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

Escalating benefits costs, such as retiree pensions, have hurt. The district also loses hundreds of millions each year when children in the city choose to go to privately run charter schools. And the budget hasn't recovered from steep cuts in state funding two years ago, Gallard said.

As a result, the district has closed 30 schools in the past 14 months, given some employees unpaid furloughs, cut benefits for others - and still faces a $304 million deficit for the coming fiscal year, Gallard said.

The budget passed at the end of May closes that gap by laying off 3,920 employees, or 20 percent of the school-based workforce, including 650 teachers.

Schools Superintendent William Hite has called the budget "catastrophic." Lori Shorr, the mayor's chief education aide, said it was a "travesty."

The city has sought permission from the state legislature to hike the local cigarette tax by $2 a pack; combined with other measures, officials estimate that would raise $74 million next year for Philadelphia schools. The district is seeking another $120 million from the state and is trying to negotiate salary and benefit cuts worth $133 million with teachers and other employees.

But so far, the state has not provided more money and employees have not agreed to work for less.

Dismayed by the standoff, the hunger strikers say they hope to keep the focus on the children of Philadelphia.

Bly said she fears schools will be chaotic without recess monitors, lunchroom aides and other support staff.

"They know our children, and they treat them like family," she said.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Simon in Boston; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Lisa Shumaker)

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