On Monday, Philadelphia public-school teachers reported to work, as they always do, in a workplace fraught with the most dangerous of all pitfalls: Hope.
In the wake of budget cuts, they report to work daily with the hope that the children will be settled; that hallways will be clean; that classrooms will be equipped with luxuries like paper and chalk.
But there is one more hope they carry with them constantly — the hope that they will have a normal day.
On Monday, that hope was not realized because, for Philadelphia’s public-school teachers, nothing is normal anymore.
In a vote that was advertised at the last minute, in a room with a smattering of people, on a day that Mayor Michael Nutter said was not our finest moment, the state-controlled School Reform Commission took away yet another thing from teachers.
The SRC, due to funding cuts, had already voted to take away counselors, janitors, nurses and supplies. But on Monday, in a nearly empty room, they took something far more valuable from Philadelphia’s public school teachers.
They took their dignity.
In a unanimous vote, the five-person panel cancelled the contract of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).
The PFT received no advance word of the action, which will force teachers to pay into healthcare benefits, but will not cut salaries.
Traditionally, such changes are negotiated through collective bargaining. However, the SRC and its lawyers believe the takeover law that created the SRC gives it the power to unilaterally impose terms on the union.
SRC Chairman Bill Green said the money saved by the move is estimated to be $54 million this school year, and $70 million in future years. The money will go directly to schools, Green added, and principals will decide how the money will be spent.
Much of that sounds reasonable, but as a wise old man once told me, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.
Words with/from the SRC chairman
The meeting at which the changes were announced was called with very little notice.
In an exclusive interview on WURD radio, I asked SRC Chairman Bill Green why it was done that way, particularly when the SRC, as a public body funded by taxpayer dollars, is supposed to make provisions for the public to attend and comment at its meetings.
“We were supposed to have the meeting last Thursday,” Green told me. “For all sorts of internal reasons including working out the final details of the legal documents, it had to be pushed to Monday.
“But, you know, when you’re involved in litigation and labor relations, you do not tell the people that you’re going to go to court against in advance that you’re going to go to court. You go to court and then you serve them papers, and so we had to follow this strategy because in part this is a legal strategy that our lawyers recommended.”
In my view, those lawyers should be fired, and not just because they recommended a strategy that cut the citizenry out of what should have been a public process. They should be fired because they recommended that the SRC abandon common decency.
When teachers have watched as their colleagues have been laid off, all the time wondering if they’re next, we owe them common decency.
When teachers have paid for school supplies out of their own pockets, we owe them common decency.
When teachers are the only blockage in the school to prison pipeline, we owe them common decency.
But in speaking with Green, the former City Councilman appointed to the SRC by Gov. Tom Corbett, I got the sense that he saw the teachers union as an entity, and not necessarily as a group of people who deserved to be treated with dignity.
Oh sure, he spoke of being proud of the teachers, and all that they’d sacrificed.
He said that the teachers are professionals who would continue to act as the professionals they are.
He rightly pointed out that teachers, like most Americans, should contribute to their healthcare benefits.
But, there seemed to me to be a cynicism behind the platitudes.
When I pressed him on the fact that the meeting effectively shut out the public, and asked if that represented government accountability, Green said that was a non-substantive issue.
“No I think it is a substantive issue,” I said, “because people need to know when the SRC is meeting and making these kinds of decisions. I think that parents would want to know. I’m a parent of a school-district child. I would have wanted to know that the SRC was making a decision that would affect the teacher who was standing in the classroom with my child. I would’ve wanted to know.”
Green’s response? “I’ve said everything I’ve got to say on this point.”
And that, I think, crystallized for me the folly of the SRC.
It is a body that seems to have little concern for the people it is supposed to serve.
If fooling the teachers union is more important than being accountable to the people, then the SRC needs to go.
After all, how can you act in the best interest of the parents and children, when you haven’t even invited them to the table?
Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays from 7 to 10 a.m. at 900 am WURD.