A cry of “shame” was heard from the audience as the School Reform Commission announced Monday, during a suddenly scheduled meeting, that it would break the contract with the teachers union and unilaterally impose changes to its members’ health benefits.
Following the sparsely attended morning meeting, many in the local education community attacked the SRC’s decision. There was an afternoon protest held outside Gov. Tom Corbett’s Philadelphia office. But there were also statements of support for the action to reduce members’ health benefits, including from the Corbett administration in Harrisburg, the Philadelphia School Partnership, and even former Gov. Ed Rendell.
Much of the anger in response to the move was directed at the scant publicity given to the public about the meeting, which was announced in the “legal notices” section of the Inquirer and Philly.com barely 24 hours beforehand.
Union chief vows legal action
At an afternoon press conference, PFT president Jerry Jordan also expressed his union’s outrage at the district’s decision to impose contract terms rather than negotiate. “What happened this morning at the School Reform Commission meeting was the perfect example of the total, total disrespect of the teachers and other school employees who work for the School District of Philadelphia.”
He promised a court battle and pointed to the union’s success in previous legal action over contract terms being imposed.
Jordan also said the district’s presentation was full of “lies.” He disputed the claim that the PFT’s contract proposals would have brought only $2 million in health care cost savings. Responding to another “lie,” he said, the fund balance in the union’s Health and Welfare Fund is “nowhere near” the $45 million reported by the district.
Earlier, retired teacher Lisa Haver, member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, had also challenged the district’s claims. “It’s an absolute lie to say that the PFT has not negotiated,” said Haver, the sole public speaker at Monday’s meeting. “This is an act of cowardice by an SRC that the people don’t want anymore.”
For some, reaction to the move was focused on the district’s scarce resources. At a morning briefing, Superintendent William Hite said, “What we’re trying to do is get resources back into schools. We’re also trying to take the least onerous way to do that.”
“I’ve said over and over again, ‘We don’t pay them enough.’ But I’ve also said, given the fiscal environment in which we are facing, we all have to share in the sacrifice in order to provide our children with what should be very basic resources, resources that children in other places take for granted.”
Susan Gobreski of Education Voters PA had a different take on the resource question, saying that the “lack of resources in public schools is toxic,” and “we can’t solve the district’s problems solely on the backs of teachers.”
“We need to create stable and secure schools — which includes supporting our educators with resources, both in the classroom and through their compensation. We need to assure our teachers that the district is fighting for them. Parents in this city are concerned about the lack of commitment from public officials to provide a stable and adequate system, and this kind of action does not help to calm the nerves of worried parents.”
Some blame Corbett
Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education said Monday’s move was politically motivated by Corbett, who continues to significantly trail opponent Tom Wolf in the governor’s race, according to polls. “This isn’t even about education any more,” she said. “This is about democracy.”
Corbett, in his statement, stressed that the PFT was nearly alone among the state’s school district unions in refusing to pay for benefits or make salary concessions.
“For nearly two years many have been working to provide a long-term funding solution for Philadelphia schools. The commonwealth and the city have approved new sources of funding; the district has dramatically cut its operating costs; and other school-related unions have agreed to contract concessions.
“Philadelphia is one of only two districts across the commonwealth that pays zero toward health care. It is now time that members of the PFT join the thousands of public school employees across the state who already contribute to their health care costs.”
Corbett’s acting secretary of education, Carolyn Dumaresq, added: “Under the terms of the new contract, PFT member contributions to health care are well in line with what teachers contribute in districts across the commonwealth.”
The American Federation of Teachers called the district’s action “Gov. Corbett’s well-planned, ‘Hail Mary’ ambush.”
“Clearly and recklessly, the SRC is trying to provoke a strike — since there have been no real negotiations since SRC Chair Bill Green was appointed by the governor,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten and AFT Pennsylvania president Ted Kirsch in a joint statement.
In a brief statement, Wolf criticized Corbett for his “chronic neglect” of Philadelphia schools and the SRC for taking unilateral action, which he said “undermines the collaboration that we need in order to develop a long term solution for schools in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania
‘Least onerous option’
The Philadelphia School Partnership’s Mark Gleason’s response echoed Hite in saying that the SRC, faced with a range of difficult choices, chose the “fairest and least onerous option” in seeking additional funding for Philadelphia schools.
“The hard truth is that health care represents one of the fastest-rising costs in education, and there can be no real solution to school funding issues without controlling health care costs,” he said.
In a coda to the day’s events, Council President Darrell Clarke remarked on what the move says about the state of Philadelphia’s schools.
“The actions of the School Reform Commission today highlight the deep distrust among those who educate our children and those who have been tasked by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to lead them. This dysfunction is the last thing the School District of Philadelphia needs when we on the local level are still scrambling for the most basic of resources to keep our schools afloat.”
Kevin McCorry of WHYY/NewsWorks and Notebook editor Paul Socolar contributed reporting.