The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union kicked off the school year Thursday by celebrating the restoration of full-time nurses and counselors.
Union president Jerry Jordan appeared along Councilwoman Helen Gym at Richard Wright Elementary School in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia to deliver a largely positive message, focusing on an uptick in district services.
“This is the very first year that I can ever remember of every school in Philadelphia having a full-time nurse,” Jordan said to a group of applauding teachers.
This year, the district has added 42 full-time counselors and 62 full-time nurses. That means schools including Richard Wright — which last year had a nurse twice a week and a counselor just one day a week — will have a far fuller suite of support staff.
School counselor Carana Bennett, who split time between Wright and George Meade Elementary School last year, said being assigned to one school will help her form firmer relationships with students and families. Wright had 385 students last year.
Jordan credited his members with pressuring lawmakers to increase education spending. Pennsylvania’s latest budget includes an additional $200 million for schools, about $50 million of which will wind up in Philadelphia.
Gym, a prominent supporter and beneficiary of the PFT, applauded union members for “keeping that vision of public education alive even when everyone else wants to tear it down.” For the first time in several years, Philadelphia schools opened without a budget shortfall or major financial uncertainty.
Gym’s biggest applause line, however, came when she mentioned a less cheery subject subject: the PFT contract. A simmering dispute between the union and the school district has left Philly teachers without a contract for more than three years. Gym vowed to change that.
“We’re gonna get a contract,” Gym told the teachers. “We’re gonna get a contract that’s fair, that is just.”
The Philadelphia Public School Notebook reported Wednesday that Mayor Jim Kenney’s office is attempting to strike a deal between the two sides and break a years-long stalemate. Kenney told the Notebook that his deputy mayor for labor relations, Richard Lazer, has been in talks with the PFT and the district.
Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt confirmed Wednesday night that the mayor has “offered [Lazer] to [the school district] to assist in any way he can.”
Jordan elaborated on the mayor’s involvement Thursday.
“I have talked with the mayor about using his offices to get the school district back to the table,” he said.
Jordan added that the two sides haven’t met face-to-face since June 15, but that the mayor’s office has acted as a go-between over the summer. He described the dynamic as one of “shuttle diplomacy,” with the mayor’s team going back and forth between the two sides in an attempt to spark serious negotiations.