Down to the wire on schools funding, nonprofit pushes a labor proposal

     Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives meet to work on the 2012 state budget. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)

    Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives meet to work on the 2012 state budget. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)

    As the state legislature approaches a critical deadline with little progress toward a funding solution for Philadelphia schools, a local nonprofit is shopping legislation linking any extra state funding to work-rules changes for public school teachers.

    The Philadelphia School Partnership has been urging lawmakers for weeks to impose three conditions on additional state funding for the school district, which faces a $304 million budget gap next year.

    Under the proposal, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract would have to provide that any vacant positions be filled through site selection, not seniority. Principals, either acting alone or with a special committee of designated teachers, would choose teachers.

    Other work-rule changes would include providing pay raises for teachers based on performance, difficult assignments and extra responsibilities, and increasing teachers’ workday from seven hours to eight.

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    Mark Gleason, the partnership’s executive director, said the group has long supported the labor changes as well as extra funding for the city’s schools.

    Gleason said tying extra money to the modifications is a more “palatable” idea to many Republicans than providing the additional funds with no strings attached.

    “We know legislators are concerned about sending money to Philadelphia, especially Republicans,” he said.

    With less than two days left until the state’s June 30 deadline to pass a budget, it is unclear whether Pennsylvania lawmakers will meet the district’s request for an additional $120 million in state funds.

    Private discussions among city, state and school district officials have centered on several potential funding sources, including a $2-a-pack cigarette tax in Philadelphia and the release of money previously designated to pay the federal Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, the plan calls for making permanent the additional 1 percent sales tax in Philadelphia that was due to expire next year.

    As of late Saturday, there was no legislative action on either the sales or cigarette taxes, both of which would require lawmakers’ approval. In fact, even Philadelphia area’s own House legislative delegation isn’t united in support of the cigarette tax.

    The Philadelphia School Partnership’s proposal hasn’t been introduced in either chamber of the legislature. Gleason said that lawmakers’ responses to the proposal “run the gamut.”

    Superintendent William Hite has pushed for expanding the workday for teachers in the union’s contract. He has said that the change would simply acknowledge the work teachers are already doing.

    Hite also supports giving principals more power over assigning teachers. The teachers’ union has argued that work-rule changes such as site selection have not been shown to improve the quality of education.

    The school district is also asking for more than $130 million in financial concessions, mostly from the teachers’ union, in addition to work rule changes. Union leaders haven’t agreed to any of those proposals. Their current contract expires Aug. 31.

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