Death of Philadelphia 1st Grader Energizes Protests Over District Budget Cuts

By Denisa R. Superville — May 22, 2014 6 min read
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Some Philadelphia schools staff members are expected to wear black to school today in memory of a 7-year-old 1st grader who died Wednesday after he fell ill at school.

Students from several schools, including Kensington High School for the Performing Arts, Central High School, and Science Leadership Academy, are also expected to march from City Hall to Gov. Tom Corbett’s office at 4 p.m. today to call for more funding for the city’s schools.

Update: (11:15 a.m.) And dozens of parents and community supporters gathered on the steps of Andrew Jackson School, a South Philadelphia elementary school where a student fell ill on Wednesday and later died, to speak out about the student’s death and ask for more money for the schools, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Inquirer’s update included a statement from Melissa Wilde, the president of Friends of Jackson and a parent of a kindergartner and 1st grader.

Wednesday’s death ignited new outrage in a community that has been lobbying desperately for more funds for the district, which has projected a $216 million deficit in the upcoming year’s operating budget and forecasted hundreds of layoffs—including nurses, school police, and teachers—and cuts to special education and transportation if the money is not found.

The child’s death, at Andrew Jackson School, where there was no nurse on duty at the time, also sparked new concerns about the possibly deadly consequences of years of accumulated steep budget cuts.

It was also a sobering reminder of the death of another Philadelphia public school student, Laporshia Massey, a 12-year-old Bryant Elementary School student, who died last September after suffering an asthma attack at school. That school also did not have a nurse on duty when the child became sick during the school day.

“It’s really a sad day for the city,” said Shanee Garner, the co-director for education policy for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, who said that the focus of Thursday’s previously planned action to request arts funding would change to reflect the child’s death. “No conversation about funding can take place without acknowledging that we have lost a second student this year.”

School District spokesman Fernando Gallard told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Wednesday that there was a nurse at Andrew Jackson School every Thursday and every other Friday.

The boy apparently fell ill in the school on Wednesday afternoon, and classroom staff administered CPR and called 911, Gallard told the paper. He was later pronounced dead at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The cause of death was unknown on Wednesday.

“It’s shocking, and it’s tragic, and we extend our deepest sympathies to the family,” Gallard told the paper.

School Principal Lisa Ciarianca-Kaplan told the Philadelphia Daily News that a certified nurse who was in the building at the time as a volunteer tended to the boy when he fell ill.

The Philadelphia City Paper quotes Ann Smigiel, the Andrew Jackson school nurse, who said that she was at the school daily until five years ago. Now she is there on Thursdays and every other Friday, according to the paper.

“There is no net for the staff or the children,” Smigiel told the paper. “There’s no requirement to have any kind of medical team. It’s my job as the nurse to make sure there’s an emergency plan, and basically it is 911...The equipment isn’t there, nothing is there for them.”

Smigiel, who the paper says worked in an emergency room for 15 years before she started at Andrew Jackson School, said she didn’t know whether her presence would have made a difference.

“If I were there would it have made a difference? I don’t know,” she said. “But I’ve done CPR in the past and that little girl has a heart transplant now,” says Smigiel, who believes that the student would have died had she not been present. “The benefit of having immediate medical care, immediate response, [and] clear decisionmakers is absolutely a part of why she made it.”

The child’s death came the same day that district officials made another trip to City Hall, according to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, to make a case for more funds to close a projected $216 million deficit in a $2.49 billion operating budget.

Superintendent William R. Hite has said that without additional funds, more cuts could be made to staff, including laying off 1,000 workers, among them 810 teachers. Class sizes are also expected to increase if the district does not receive financial assistance.

The City Council last week introduced legislation to extend the city’s 1 percent sales tax to help the school district, a partial fulfillment of one of the district’s many requests.

But while the extension of the sales tax will provide the first $120 million in revenues to the school district in the first year, the school’s share would decrease over the years, to a 50-50 split between the city and the school by the year 2018. The city’s portion is to go toward its pension payments.

That plan has not met with unanimous support. One reason is that the state changed the law last year to permit the city to give all of the recurring revenues from the sales tax extension to the school.

And Rob Dubow, the city’s finance director, may have added more ammunition for those who want the school to receive all the funds. According to CBS Philadelphia, Dubow said the council’s plan would help the pension fund achieve solvency two years earlier than expected, in 2028 rather than 2030.

Parents and residents took to Twitter after hearing about the child’s death. Many were already outraged over the years of significant funding cuts and had been lobbying the city, Gov. Corbett, and the state legislature for more funding for the schools.

Update (12: 40 p.m.) On Thursday, the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, and American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania President Ted Kirsch released an open letter to Gov. Tom Corbett, calling for the governor to fully fund all of the state’s schools. Philadelphia’s funding woes have been blamed in part on Corbett’s nearly $1 billion statewide cuts to education in 2011, which coincided with the end of federal economic-stimulus funds.

“We don’t know if a school nurse could have saved this young boy,” the union presidents wrote in the May 22 letter.” But we do know every child deserves a full-time nurse in his or her school. We do know all parents deserve to know that their child will be safe and his or her most basic needs will be tended to at school. We do know that all Philadelphia children deserve better.”

“Mr. Governor, we cannot tolerate one more life lost, one more dream snatched from our children. You have the power to fix what you have broken. Restore full and fair funding to all Pennsylvania schools. And do it now.”

A full copy of the letter is here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.