During a raucous meeting packed with angry teachers and activists, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted Thursday to deploy its emergency powers to suspend rules on teacher seniority as the district begins to rehire 1,000 of the 3,800 staff members laid off in June.
After a summer of fiscal crisis, layoffs, school closings and political uncertainty, superintendent William Hite said he needs the measures to ensure an orderly school opening on Sept. 9.
The state law that set up the School Reform Commission gave it power to suspend some provisions of the school code in an emergency.
The five-member SRC board voted unanimously, among other provisions, to:
1) Let Hite ignore usual seniority rules in rehiring laid-off teachers and guidance counselors.
Hite used guidance counselors as an example — saying that he wanted the ability to take a guidance counselor who last year worked at ‘x’ school, and return that counselor to the same school. As the school code is currently written, teachers and counselors would be rehired based solely on longevity in the district. The more senior staff members would get to choose for themselves among the vacancies.
Hite did confirm, though, that not all schools would regain a guidance counselor.
2) Let the district suspend automatic, longevity-based pay increases for staff.
3) Allow the district to hire non-unionized staff for its “independent” schools. The potential biggest impact of which would occur in the district’s new online virtual school.
4) Allow the district to have more flexibility in how it deals with charter schools, including the ability to budget “responsible” growth of charters and to suspend, revoke or not renew charter status.
Of all changes, this set was the only to receive cheers from the standing-room-only crowd.
SRC heaped with scorn
During the public comment section, speaker after speaker blasted the commission for calling a “sneaky” last-minute meeting; selling out teachers and schoolchildren; supporting a Harrisburg agenda to privatize public education; failing to stand up to an anti-public schools agenda from Harrisburg; and other sins.
“This selective elimination of seniority that you are about to embark on has another name — it’s to justify institutional inequity,” said Helen Gym, founder of Parents United PA.
“Your job is not to selectively and arbitrarily make decisions about the needs of any child in this district. Every child is needy. Every child deserves a guidance counselor. Every child deserves a safety aide,” Gym testified.
Donna Cooper, head of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and formerly policy director for former Gov. Ed Rendell, urged the crowd to consider whether the real problem was not SRC actions, but school funding decisions in Harrisburg.
“We are in this room, in this fight, because the governor of Pennsylvania imposed a $1 billion cut to public schools in this state, and he has stood behind state laws that make it nearly impossible for you to put a balanced budget in place,” said Cooper.
Sylvia Simms, appointed to the SRC in January by Mayor Michael Nutter, was called on by many in the crowd to be the “voice of the parents.” Simms, a former district bus attendant and founder of the activist group Parent Power addressed those calls before voting.
“Too many people talk about the adults. Too many people worry more about the adults than the students they’re supposed to serve,” Simms said. “So I vote yes in support of Dr. Hite.”
Commission members get police escort
After their unanimous vote, SRC members got a police escort out of the packed meeting room. In an overflow space, a sea of red-shirted members and supporters of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers watched a video feed of the meeting and complained about not being let into the main room.
During his testimony, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan scoffed at the notion that suspending seniority rules would provide a workforce that better ensured, as Hite said, “the needs of the students.”
“What do you think PFT members have been doing for years in schools?” said Jordan. “They’ve been working based on the needs of the students.”
Following the post-vote outcry, reporters were led to a roundtable discussion where Hite defended the action and intent of the SRC.
“It wasn’t about trying to wholesale-change or attack some provision in the contract. It was really about how do we manage the fewer staff that we have when we’re trying to open schools in less than 25 days,” said Hite.
‘Breaking with practices that got us here’
Asked about how he felt listening to pleas from teachers, counselors, students and parents, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said that in recent years he’s joined the rest of the SRC in “having to do things that none of us would ever want to do, but were necessary because of an unprecedented financial crisis that we found and have been trying to work the district out of and part of that has been breaking from the practices that got us here.”
The rehiring of staff is now possible, Hite said, based on the city’s assurance that $50 million will come to the district at some point this school year.
Although Nutter and City Council are still squabbling about the best way to deliver those funds, Hite is taking the guarantees of both at their words.
One-thousand district employees will be rehired, he said. And school will open on Sept. 9.