Philly Schools: It’s the principal of the thing

     New SRC Chair Bill Green speaks as Gov. Tom Corbett and Farah Jimenez look on. (Kim Paynter/WHYY)

    New SRC Chair Bill Green speaks as Gov. Tom Corbett and Farah Jimenez look on. (Kim Paynter/WHYY)

    To paraphrase a saying that I heard once, “If you can bind up the strong leader, you can plunder the whole house.”

    That’s what I see happening in the Philadelphia School District, where principals are being told they must agree to drastic cuts in pay and benefits or be subject to even more Draconian measures. The contract they’ve been offered is barebones, to say the least.

    Among the details

    The School District has asked principals to take a 15-percent pay cut. The principals are currently year-round employees, but under the new pact, they would be forced to take what amounts to an annual two-month furlough.

    The principals would also have to begin paying toward their healthcare benefits. They shouldn’t feel unfairly targeted, however.

    The cuts are part of the District’s five-year strategy to reap $130 million in savings from the principals’ union and four other district unions, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

    New School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green, an appointee of Gov. Tom Corbett, has indicated his willingness to use the SRC’s powers to impose terms on unions that won’t deal. In other words, the contracts being offered to the people who run our public schools are “take it or leave it.” The negotiation part is simply window dressing.

    No-win situation

    Unfortunately, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner where school funding is concerned.

    We’ve danced to the music of never-ending funding for far too long, while ignoring the creeping sound of looming deficits and budget shortfalls.

    By the time we turned the music off, 24 schools were closed, our public-school system faced a $304 million budget shortfall and our children were marching along Broad Street yelling “S.O.S! Save Our Schools!”

    By then, it was too late. And now, here we are. Having danced to the music, we must do what dancers have always done: We must pay the piper.

    Destined to fail?

    However, I fear the cost may be too high this time, because I believe we’ve danced ourselves into a corner.

    By leaving our ailing public schools in the hands of a Governor and SRC Chair who have both made clear their affinity for charters, we have set ourselves up to have our schools gutted in the name of fiscal responsibility.

    Call me cynical, but I see the party lines going something like this:

    “Yes, we’d like to have the best and brightest principals leading our schools, but we can’t afford to pay them. That’s why we’ve offered them a take-it-or-leave-it pay cut, given them mandatory furloughs, and told them that a portion of their reduced pay must go toward their healthcare benefits.   

    “Yes, we’d like to have the kind of innovative thinking and strong commitment that can set our schools on the path to better performance, but we can’t afford to help them. That’s why the support staff and the teachers are going to have to accept concessions, too.

    “It’s not that we don’t want to support all those regular public schools, and the mostly poor children who attend them. It’s just that we can’t afford it.”

    The party lines will be all dressed up in their Sunday best, smiling and pretending to care about the children. Meanwhile, the unions will be broken, teachers will be demoralized and strong leaders who once led our best public schools will be bound by the cuts they’ve accepted.

    They came, saw, got conquered

    I personally know principals who left suburban school districts so they could come home to Philadelphia and lead ailing schools back to respectability. I’ve not only watched them. I’ve gone into their schools and worked with them.

    Now, as a reward for their diligence, we’re asking these strong leaders to accept pay cuts the likes of which they’ve never seen.

    That’s a shame.

    I don’t pretend to know what will happen in the wake of this firestorm, but I know we won’t be able to keep these strong leaders for long.

    Some will cross county lines and take the helms of schools that can pay them what they’re worth.

    Others will get out of the education field altogether.

    Still others will go to other parts of the country.

    Those who remain will suffer with the rest of us, knowing the strongest leaders have been bound. Then, they’ll have to do what too many of us have been doing for too long.

    They’ll have watch as people who don’t care about our children come in and plunder the whole house.

    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.