Philly reaches tentative contract with teachers

 Philadelphia teachers protest outside City Hall on May 1, 2017. After 5 years without a contract, the teachers union and the Philadelphia school district have reached a tentative agreement. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia teachers protest outside City Hall on May 1, 2017. After 5 years without a contract, the teachers union and the Philadelphia school district have reached a tentative agreement. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philly teachers may finally be getting a raise.

After a half-decade stalemate, the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers announced Friday they’ve reached a tentative agreement on a new contract.

Neither side published details of the proposal, except to say the proposed agreement will run through August 2020.

For the deal to become final, two things need to happen. First, PFT membership must vote to ratify the agreement in a general meeting — which it is planning for Monday at the Liacouras Center at Temple University with doors opening at 4 p.m. If the pact is ratified, a majority of the five commissioners on the School Reform Commission must vote to approve the deal.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“My top priority this school year has been to get a contract with the PFT that recognizes the hard work of teachers and school staff. I am excited to announce we have a tentative agreement that accomplishes that goal,” Superintendent William Hite said in a statement. “Teachers and school staff are at the heart of our work to create great schools close to where children live. They have supported students through the district’s difficult financial times, and they are crucial to the progress we are making in schools across the city.”

SRC chair Joyce Wilkerson said in a statement: “The teachers have gone long enough without a contract and this contract is one that benefits our teachers, our students and the entire School District of Philadelphia.”

Raises, bonuses, addressing lost wages

Sources with knowledge of the terms indicate that the three-year pact does deal with the problem of money that teachers lost over the past four years, as well as including raises and bonuses going into the future. One person described it as “generous.” For the duration of the stalemate, teachers got no raises for accruing experience and obtaining additional degrees.

That means that a teacher with five years’ experience was working for the same amount as a first or second-year teacher.

Hite said the district still believes the deal is a responsible one, though, that will help Philly’s public schools avoid the fiscal calamities that plagued it at the beginning of the decade.

“It has to be the type of fiscal structure that doesn’t put us back where we were several years ago,” he said. “That’s how we negotiated throughout this whole process.”

The Caucus of Working Educators, a group within the union that challenged the PFT leadership last fall, had planned meetings on Tuesday when it looked like a tentative agreement would be ready by then. The PFT is holding a webinar for its members on Saturday. to discuss the terms. WE is urging its members to organize before school, breakfast or lunch meetings on Monday to make sure people are informed before they vote.

On its website, the group has said that the members should have a week to study the contract before voting. “Rushing this process risks its success,” according to one post. It has also called for more transparency and public discussion around the negotiations and the process.

If they sign a new contract, PFT members would receive raises for the first time in years. The district, meanwhile, could claim a major victory on its road back to stability and market itself as a more attractive destination for potential employees.

“Because we had to make a lot of hard decisions, we now find ourselves in the position of being at a more stable place,” said Hite. “Not as stable as I would like it to be, but a more stable place. So I do think that does create a different dynamic and a different environment.”

Deal augurs respect, better relations

Councilwoman Helen Gym, a strong PFT ally, said the agreement “signals the long-awaited start of a new chapter of respect and improved relations for public education in our city.”

Council President Darrell Clarke called it “a fair contract that shows respect for the professionalism and dedication of PFT members.”

“I’m hopeful, for the new contract,” Gym said. “We can’t create good schools unless we value the teachers and uphold the type of working conditions that dictate the learning conditions our children are educated in.”

Her statement lauded teachers for working without raises for so long.

“To our PFT members: I know that no words can sufficiently thank you for the sacrifices you have made for our students and schools over the past four years. I understand that there is no easy fix to restore the morale and trust that has been weakened during unprecedented attacks on public education during your tenure.

“I stand with you. I look forward to opening the next chapter of renewed investment into our schools as we build a public education system that works for all of us.”

The absence of a teachers contract dominated district discourse for years, casting a cloud over Philadelphia’s public school system even as its finances and management recovered from years of dysfunction. Teachers routinely threatened to leave their posts for more lucrative positions in the suburbs or leave their profession altogether if the two sides couldn’t reach a resolution.

On to the financial reckoning

If that cloud dissipates with the signing of a new deal, attention will turn to the district’s finances.Philadelphia school officials project a deficit starting in fiscal year 2019 that would grow to $700 million by fiscal year 2022 without more money from the city or state. Those projections factor in the new teachers contract, but it’s unknown whether the deal reached Friday is larger or smaller than the placeholder deal district officials used when making their estimates.

Advocates, administrators and teachers will also be eager to know if the contract contains significantly different work rules than the prior version. District officials have long pressed for greater hiring and firing flexibility, less reliance on seniority in teacher placement, and a compensation system at least in part based on performance. Union representatives, typically, oppose those efforts.

The PFT has more than 11,000 members, including teachers, nurses, counselors, and secretaries.The five-year deadlock between the district and the union over rewriting contract terms was exacerbated by an unprecedented fiscal crisis and a unique governance structure. Alone in the state, the Philadelphia school district has no power to raise its own revenue, depending instead on the city and state governments for almost all its funds.

Citing the district’s fiscal and academic condition, the state took it over in 2001, abolishing the Board of Education and creating the five-member School Reform Commission. That legislation stripped the PFT of its right to strike and, theoretically, gave the SRC “special powers” to deal with the district’s fiscal crisis.

Years of ‘status quo’

In 2013, the contract was extended for a year, but after that the lack of an agreement resulted in a “status quo” contract in which salaries were frozen pending a new pact.

Most teachers have worked without any raises for four years.

The PFT and the district, regardless of the superintendent or governance structure, have never had a functional relationship. The two sides historically have disagreed about almost everything — on what basis teachers should be paid, whether new money should be invested in higher salaries or in hiring more teachers, how teachers should be assigned to schools.

That tenuous situation was thrown into chaos in 2011 when Republican Gov. Tom Corbett effectively cut $1 billion in state and federal education aid to school districts, with the brunt of the cuts — some $250 million — falling on Philadelphia.

During this austerity period, other unions, including blue-collar workers and the bargaining unit representing principals, took pay cuts, acceding to the district’s demand that everyone contribute to the “shared sacrifice” to help weather the crisis.

But the PFT — known for marathon strikes in the 1970s and early 1980s — held firm. It was a Pyrrhic victory; while avoiding pay cuts, teachers went without raises they had earned under the terms of the expired pact. Those savings are what largely allowed the district to end the past two years with small fund balances instead of deficits, although huge shortages are forecast starting in fiscal 2019 with or without big bumps in teacher salaries.

District, teachers increasingly at odds

The district-union relationship soured further when, after a year of fruitless talks, in October 2014 the SRC attempted to take unilateral action using special powers given to it as part of the state takeover of the district. It canceled the contract and tried to require payments into health care — most members do not contribute toward their premiums — saying it would invest the $44 million saved into restoring some positions it had cut, including counselors and nurses.

That action occurred at an unusual Monday morning meeting that was barely advertised in advance, and caused outrage. The PFT immediately sued, and the courts sided with the union and against the SRC. It was more than a year before counselors and nurses were rehired and placed back in the schools — another Pyrrhic victory.

During the deadlock, the union also successfully pursued other lawsuits against the SRC. For instance, when the district hired back most of the counselors, it did not follow the contract by placing them in schools according to seniority, instead mostly assigning them back to the schools they had left. Through that and other court rulings, it became clear that the state courts had decided that the state legislation creating the SRC was too vague and had given the body virtually nothing by way of special powers.

For most of the last four years, negotiations occurred only sporadically. Some sources said that the PFT was holding out for the election of new leadership at the city and state. In November 2014, Corbett lost to Democrat Tom Wolf who, in his first year, did propose an ambitious tax overhaul that would have hiked education spending significantly, making up for much of the money lost under Corbett.

But his plans to raise new revenue went nowhere in the Republican Legislature; while education spending has increased substantially under Wolf, the district is still not back where it was before the 2012 cuts.

In 2015 Jim Kenney was elected mayor, replacing Michael Nutter, who had not been close with the PFT, presided over school closings and endorsed the “portfolio” model of schools that resulted in the expansion of mostly non-union charters. But Kenney has not been able to wave a magic wand either and produce the kind of money for a new contract that met the PFT demands.

As for the relationship with Harrisburg, the Republican Legislature made it clear that it would not cough up more money give to Philadelphia teachers, whose salaries continued to slip compared to those in most suburban districts. Its priorities were to expand charter schools while holding in check the huge chunk of state education aid sent to Philadelphia.

Finally recognizing the ‘greater good’

In explaining why this has gone on so long, one district source said, “We didn’t have the finances, and they wouldn’t come down” from their demands.

The longer the deadlock, the more expensive a solution became as the union wanted its members to receive some back pay for the money they had lost. In the fall, it became public that the district had made an offer worth more than $100 million over five years, but the union rejected it as insufficient because it didn’t include retroactive compensation and built-in cost-of-living increases. It would have bumped teachers up one step, but did not restore them to the steps they had earned based on years of experience and education level.

At the start of the talks, the district wanted to totally revamp teacher compensation and abolish altogether the automatic increases for accruing additional degrees and experience. District leaders talked about devising performance criteria instead to determine raises, but ultimately relented on that.

Once the sides came reasonably close on the financial package, the last holdup was over how to distribute the money — giving most of the raises up front, or waiting until nearer to the end of the contract. Frontloading means larger raises earlier and adds to the total cost; saving the biggest increments for later saves some money.

Money was the dominant but not the only issue — the use of seniority in teacher assignment has long been a bone of contention and apparently was an issue in these negotiations.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the district won any “site selection,” giving principals and school teams the right to fill some vacancies regardless of seniority. When “site selection” started, 75 percent of each school’s faculty had to vote in favor.

Before site selection, teachers largely chose where they worked, a system that many school reformers said made it hard to build school teams of like-minded educators.

The PFT was given ammunition for its position at the eleventh hour of negotiations. On June 8, Commonwealth Court ruled that the district violated the contract after rehiring counselors that had been laid off, saying that the placement process in schools should have been based on seniority.

Throughout the contract deadlock, the PFT and district battled in a series of court cases that demonstrated just how bitter the relationship had grown. Hite said Friday that, aside from the direct implications of the deal, it was important to show district and union officials could work together productively.

“There were two competing sides — both in the public sector — who got together and accomplished something because we stayed with it and saw the greater good,” Hite said.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal