Amid teacher hiring binge, Philly union cries foul

Visit the School District of Philadelphia’s website, and you’ll find three words written in oversized letters:

“We Are Hiring.”

The banner — and its accompanying videos — are intended to entice newcomers to a district plagued by years of rolling teacher vacancies. For current district art teacher Marianne Evans, it’s a bold reminder that she’s still jobless.

“When you’re in a situation such as mine, and you see that, it’s just mind-boggling,” said Evans.

Evans, 55, was recently let go from her position at Spring Garden Elementary School after a provisional, one-year appointment. By her count, Evans has since applied for at least 18 open district positions and received seven interviews. Not one of those seven schools have hired her.

“It was soul crushing,” said Evans of not getting a job. “I worked incredibly hard, and I just can’t believe I’m in this position where I don’t know whether or where I have a job next year.”

A hiring frenzy has put the School District of Philadelphia on track to fill all its teacher vacancies by September. But not everyone is smiling. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said the district disregarded work rules and spurned veteran teachers in its drive to fill every position by June 30.

According to the latest district numbers, 78 veteran teachers don’t yet have jobs — just a day after the district announced it filled nearly every position.

“It’s a simple issue of fundamental fairness and recognizing that those who have given service to the district deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” said PFT president Jerry Jordan.

The 78 unplaced teachers are forced transfers — the legal term for teachers who’ve lost their jobs. In many cases, teachers are force transferred because their positions have been eliminated. Union officials say forced transfers have typically been guaranteed new positions through the district’s hiring process. This year, they said, many have been passed over in favor of new hires.

District accused of ‘chaotic, confusing’ process

“We had many, many, many calls [from] people that were either interviewed and never heard back or sent their resume to 14,15 schools and never got an interview,” said PFT vice president, Arlene Kempin.

She accused the district of turning the hiring process “into something that’s totally chaotic and confusing to our members.”

“People are coming down here in droves trying to figure out do they have a job in September and what’s going on,” Kempin said.

Under pressure from parents, education advocates, and government officials, the district has pressed hard to eliminate teacher vacancies and start next school year with a full-time teacher in every classroom. The district vowed earlier this year to fill all 1,940 of its open positions by June 30, and it nearly succeeded. By week’s end, just 45 teaching spots will still be available, according to the district.

To accomplish that, district leaders launched a sprawling recruitment campaign in the spring, pushed principals to make their hires before the prior school year ended, and opened the hiring process earlier than in past years.

Union officials argue the district also ran roughshod over work rules in its quest to fill vacancies. The union’s contract with the district expired in 2013, but the status quo contract does set out a number of work rules.

“Just about every word of that language has been violated,” said Kempin. “That process has been totally violated.”

Union leaders say that in past years the district would estimate the number of expected vacancies in a given subject area and then match that to the number of veteran teachers seeking a new position in that subject area. For example, if there were more math teachers seeking work than there were open math positions, the district wouldn’t allow outside hires to compete for jobs.

This year those rules broke down, the union said, and an overabundance of new hires ended up taking jobs historically reserved for internal transfers. So far, the district has hired 531 new teachers for the upcoming school year.

“New hires were appointed and current people don’t have jobs,” said Kempin. “Absolutely, that’s new.”

Considering external applicants, internal candidates together

The district admits it changed its hiring protocol this year, but not in the way the union claims.

At a press conference Wednesday, superintendent William Hite said 2016 was the first time in years district principals could interview new hires at the same time they interviewed forced transfers. In the past, Hite said, principals had to interview transfer candidates before considering any other applicants.

“For the first time ever the principals and the site selection committees were able to consider external candidates at the same time they considered all internal transfers,” said Hite. “We weren’t waiting to place all transfers first, but people could vet the external candidates and the internal transfer candidates at the same time.”

Two principals at the event confirmed Hite’s account, saying the ability to consider all candidates at the same time helped them streamline the hiring process.

The union, however, said principals have long been able to consider all candidates at once. They say the difference this year is that the district failed to cap the number of new hires in each subject area.

Crosstalk aside, it’s clear the district’s supercharged efforts to fill teacher vacancies have drawn the union’s attention — and its ire. The fallout calls into question whether the district can meet its hiring goals while simultaneously abiding by the pages of work rules laid out in its contract with the PFT.

Asked whether the district’s hiring protocol violated its contract with the PFT, spokesman Fernando Gallard stated, “The hiring process the school district utilized this year was the best way to match the right teacher with the right school while also attracting talented new teachers to the district.”

Veteran teachers still have a chance as openings develop

The 78 unhired teachers are still eligible for jobs as they become available. Vacancies often open during the summer and in the early part of the school year. The district has vowed to fill those vacancies, whenever possible, with veteran teachers, Gallard said.

“Placing our veteran teachers in vacancies remains our top priority, and moving forward, as vacancies open up this summer due to retirements, resignations, and terminations, veteran teachers in the content areas of those vacancies will always be placed into a vacancy first before an external candidate in the same content area in order to ensure all of our veteran teachers have teaching placements,” he said.

Kempin said she’s been assured by the district that force-transfer teachers will not be laid off.

Some, however, may have to pick up new skills. Last Friday, the district emailed 21 unmatched veteran teachers and told them they’d be eligible for open positions if they earned emergency certifications in either social studies or English.

“Please note that if you do not respond or you respond that you are not willing to get the emergency certification, you will remain unmatched,” the memo read.

For stranded teachers, including Marianne Evans, the only recourse is to wait and hope a position opens. Evans said she doesn’t know what will happen if the school year begins and she doesn’t have a job. She’s heard rumors that she’ll be labeled an “overflow” hire and be allowed to idle until a new art job comes free.

“I’ve also heard that potentially, if by September nothing opens up, I could be laid off,” said Evans. “But again, that’s rumor.”

Evans worked for years in advertising before becoming a teacher. Last year was her first teaching art in the School District of Philadelphia and her first year belonging to a union. She looked forward to the job security and continuity that comes with joining a bargaining unit.

“It’s hard to believe this is a union position,” she said.  

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.