Philly schools take risk by disbursing health care savings before court rules

The Philadelphia School District decided Friday to give schools access to $15 million starting Monday, based on expected savings from forcing teachers to contribute toward their health care premiums.

Since the School Reform Commission terminated its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the district has been planning three disbursements totalling $44 million.

Until Friday, it was unclear when principals would have access to those funds. Principals were notified in mid-October what their school allocation would be, but the disbursement date was left up in the air after several legal challenges by the teachers union, which is protesting the legality of the SRC’s unilateral move.

On Monday, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas granted the union’s request for an injunction in the case, effectively halting the district’s plans to begin charging teachers for health care premiums on Dec. 15.

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All eyes then turned to Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, where the SRC has asked for a declaratory judgment in the matter. President Judge Dan Pellegrini heard arguments Wednesday, but has not yet made a ruling.

The teachers union doesn’t believe the Commonwealth Court has proper jurisdiction. 

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said officials made the decision to disburse the funds without any indication of the judge’s thinking.

“There is a risk. We are aware of the risk. We are taking that risk because we believe our students are worth the risk, and their need is great,” said Gallard. “There is urgent need in the classroom for these resources.”

If the courts ultimately side with the union, Gallard said the district would have to either “figure out other ways to find the dollars” or “make further cuts.”  The district’s official position, though, is a belief that the courts will concur with its logic.

Gallard said many principals will use their portion of the $15 million to neutralize some or all of the effects of “leveling,” the process by which the district shuffles faculty based on actual student enrollment.

Schools that receive more students than expected tend to gain resources through leveling; schools getting fewer students tend to have resources taken away.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan hypothesized that the district’s action was a “public relations campaign to try to make it appear that it’s the PFT’s fault that the schools don’t have what they should have.”

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