BY Dale Mezzacappa, senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers endorsed Helen Gym for mayor on Monday, with union President Jerry Jordan calling her an “indefatigable, indomitable, unrelenting powerhouse of boundless energy and unparalleled determination” on behalf of the city’s schools.
The endorsement, attended by a few dozen teachers and union members outside the Heston Elementary School in West Philadelphia, came as no surprise. Gym resigned from the City Council late last year to run for mayor and started her public life as an education activist. During that period, she often sided with the union against district leadership, especially during the 17 years when a five-member School Reform Commission mostly appointed by the governor ran the district.
As the union tussled with district leadership over not just wages and benefits, but control of the district itself, Gym “has been with us through it all,” Jordan said.
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Jordan said that in a poll among members of the PFT — the city’s largest union with 13,000 members — Gym got four times as many votes as the next-closest candidate in the crowded field of nine candidates.
Gym said, as mayor, she would “dedicate our city to rebuilding our teaching staff, supporting leaders, and community members who support our children.”
The mayor has significant influence over the school district and has the power to appoint all nine board members to four-year terms. The mayor and City Council also determine the city’s contribution to the district’s budget and whether to raise taxes toward the effort.
A former teacher and a parent of three students who attended both district and charter schools in Philadelphia, Gym said she understood “what it meant to look at the city’s life through its young people, its parents and children and families, and through the classroom. I taught in a 100-year-old building. I understood the 90-degree classrooms and the lack of resources.”
As a member of the City Council, Gym has been outspoken about potentially dangerous conditions in school buildings, especially asbestos and high levels of lead in drinking water. She successfully sponsored legislation requiring the district to replace all its drinking fountains with hydration stations that filter out lead by 2025.
But she also stressed the power of schools to change students’ lives. The daughter of immigrants from Korea, she credited her education in public schools for where she is today.
“I am on a mission to make sure that we modernize every single one of Philadelphia public schools so they can be the temple of learning that all of our children and families expect it to be,” Gym said at Monday’s event, where she wore a red coat, the union’s signature color.
Recognizing that public safety is a top issue in the race, Gym said she would declare a state of emergency on day one and move to get illegal guns off the streets and beef up policing. However, she said that schools are crucial to offering young people alternatives to violence.
Gym has an extensive history of putting public pressure on the state government and the district when it comes to funding and other issues affecting Philadelphia schools.
In 2021, Gym was among 15 people arrested at a Harrisburg protest that focused on trying to get the state to increase spending on education and distribute the money more fairly. (Pennsylvania has some of the widest spending gaps between rich and poor districts in the country, and the state’s K-12 funding system is at the center of a ongoing court battle.)
Gym led protests in 2012 and 2013 in response to the School Reform Commission’s decision to close 30 Philadelphia schools and slash personnel in the wake of severe state budget cuts.
She pressed the commission to finally agree to a contract with the city teachers union in 2017; the union had been without a contract for five years. It finally did so in 2017. She also was a leading voice in pressing for the return of the district to local control, which happened in 2018.
She cruised to reelection in 2019 while stressing education issues during her campaign. She got roughly 107,150 votes in that race in the at-large Democratic race, 40,000 more than her nearest rival, Alan Domb, and 45,000 more than Derek Green. Both Domb and Green are also now running for mayor.
“I have known Helen Gym for a very long time,” said Lenora Howard, a supportive services assistant who is the PFT building rep at Edward Heston School, an elementary school, at Monday’s endorsement event. “She has always been a friend of education.”
Gym was a founder and the first editor of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, which evolved from a quarterly print publication to an online news site. The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia in 2020.
Monday’s PFT endorsement wasn’t the only recent campaign-focused event to focus on Philadelphia’s schools.
On Friday, roughly 100 people — including several students — rallied on behalf of the Kids Campaign outside City Hall and vowed to make what they called “kids’ issues,” among them education, central to this year’s mayoral race. The campaign consists of about 40 organizations, including Project HOME, the Reinvestment Fund, and early childhood providers and kids sports organizations, as well as groups like the Maternity Care Coalition.
The Kids Campaign plans on holding a series of mayoral forums in April highlighting education.
The primary is May 16.
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at [email protected].