Philly teachers told their union is still far from a deal

 Students check in as they arrive at a new high school called The LINC, which stands for Learning in New Contexts in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Students check in as they arrive at a new high school called The LINC, which stands for Learning in New Contexts in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

There was no strike on Labor Day.

Less than 48 hours after the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract expired, union brass met with the rank-and-file  at Temple’s University’s Liacouras Center for an update on negotiations with the Philadelphia School District.

The closed-door meeting lasted about two hours and was attended by about a third of the PFT’s 15,000 members.

As the meeting ended, and a sea of red-shirted PFT members flooded out of the auditorium and into the sticky North Broad night, two key things became clear:

1) Negotiations between the union and the district will continue as the two sides attempt to bridge what still seems a bitter divide.

2) Teachers will report to work for professional development this week (starting Tuesday), and classes for students will begin as scheduled next Monday.

Facing what began as a $304 million budget gap, the Philadelphia School District has asked the PFT for $103 million in salary and health care concessions. The district wants teachers to begin paying into their health-care coverage (most currently don’t) and to take pay cuts between 5 and 13 percent (depending on length of service).

Last week, union leadership countered that it would be willing to present its members with a plan to take a one-year pay freeze and negotiate some concession on health-care. Specific details on the latter, though, are still being withheld.

At Monday night’s meeting PFT President Jerry Jordan reiterated this idea and assured teachers that the union would not accept a new collective bargaining agreement that included salary cuts.

In a news conference that followed the meeting, Jordan said he was “concerned about the ramifications in the long run” of asking teachers to reduce pay in order to cover the district’s financial woes.

“How are we going to recruit and retain our teachers if we are slashing their salaries?” Jordan asked.

In a statement issued soon after the union’s meeting ended, school district spokesman Fernando Gallard said that “the current offer from the PFT falls far short of the $103 million in recurring savings our students need and does not include necessary educational reforms.”

Gallard said the district planned “to remain at the table” with the union in hopes of reaching a “fair agreement.”

On that point Jordan agreed, affirming that negotiations would resume on Tuesday.

Bigger picture

Of the $304 million it asked for, the district says, thus far, it can only count on $83 million.

This is how it breaks down:

$16 million from district savings.
$15 million from improved local tax collections.
$50 million will come from the city, but the exact source of that money is still a point of disagreement between the mayor and City Council.
$2 million from the state increasing its basic education funding.

According to a deal reached in Harrisburg in June, another $45 million from the state is contingent on the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education deciding that the Philadelphia School District has adopted a ‘reform’ agenda.

Gov. Corbett has maintained, despite objections from some Philadelphia lawmakers, that his definition of adequate reform has always included major concessions from the PFT.

On this point, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, addressed Philadelphia teachers Monday night, saying the PFT has the support of the 1.5 million nationwide members.

“The entire country is watching Philadelphia right now,” Weingarten said in the press conference afterwards. “It is a mockery to ‘talk the talk’ about education being ‘important’ and then to see the facts on the ground in Philadelphia.”

Weingarten specifically called out Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and the School Reform Commission for not trying harder to pressure Corbett into releasing the $45 million in the short-term and creating a fair-funding formula in the long-term.

“The debate that they are actually asking the city of Philadelphia to have is a race to the bottom,” said Weingarten. “They’re actually asking teachers to take pay cuts because they refuse to ask for real funding for kids in this city.”

Mayor Nutter has said that he dislikes the state’s current funding package, but that the city is powerless to challenge its terms. Nutter says he wasn’t a part of the last-minute budget deal cut at the close of the legislative session and that he found out about it by “reading it on a blog.”

Teacher reactions

The most unifying point among the members surveyed outside of the Liacouras Center was on refusing to cut salaries.

“I’ve given back plenty,” said Melissa Dunne, a special education teacher at Harding Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia. “I provide for my students. I buy them clothes. I buy them food. I give back a lot that I take from my own family to make sure that my kids in school have what they need.”

Although she wasn’t thrilled with the idea, Dunne joined with other teachers who said they’d be willing to make health-care concessions.

Not all agreed, though.

Health and phys-ed teacher Michael Schieber stood outside the Liacouras Center with a large sign that demanded “no concessions.”

The six-year teaching vet said that cuts to health care would hurt teachers’ ability to repay debts owed on student loans. Ultimately, he said, concessions will only further drive talent from Philly’s public schools.

“Everybody started looking for jobs outside the district,” said Schieber, who teaches at Bodine High School for international affairs.

Some PFT members balked at the idea that the union should cooperate in opening the schools at all.

“This evening was a complete farce,” said Michelle Racca, former guidance counselor at Franklin Learning Center

After 20 years in the district she was one of the 3,800 employees laid off in June.

She still doesn’t have her job back and now says she feels let down by the union’s decision to go back to work while her future remains uncertain:

“I don’t believe if we are ‘one union,’ as they claim, that we should have schools starting.”

Jordan said that a strike at this point would be “inappropriate for children and families.”

If teachers were to strike, the same state law that set up the School Reform Commission would give the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education the power to revoke the teaching certificates of individual teachers.

Union spokesman George Jackson pointed out that laid-off employees like Racca would not run that risk in a strike.

Monday’s meeting did little to dispel the dark cloud of anxiety and uncertainty that’s shrouded the school system all summer.

“Things could get ugly in the next few months,” said Chris Palmer, teacher at Bartram High School, “or maybe in the next few weeks.”

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