The Philadelphia School District has been desperately seeking help from the city, state and labor unions in order to plug a $304 million budget gap.
The city government is pledging extra money, though part of that still requires state-enabling legislation. Pennsylvania officials are also in talks about finding more cash. So what about the other part of the three-legged stool?
It seems even less certain now than the other two wobbly legs.
To avert a so-called “doomsday budget” next school year, Superintendent William Hite is calling for labor concessions, mostly from the teachers’ union, whose contract expires on Aug. 31.
That means tiered salary cuts and extra contributions for health insurance. Currently, the vast majority of teachers do not contribute any percentage of their salaries for health insurance, though they do kick in co-payments.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan has been persistent: He is not doing pay cuts.
“My members are very clear that they do not want, nor can they afford, a pay cut,” Jordan said. “The teachers in districts surrounding Philadelphia are paid between 13 and 19 percent more.”
But would he make concessions if it could reverse the thousands of layoff notices mailed out this month?
“We have no reason to,” Jordan said. “Because the district has not made that a proposal, that ‘we will bring back people if you concede.'”
According to Jordan, school district officials want PFT members who earn less than $25,000 annually to take a 5 percent pay cut; those who earn between $25,000 and $50,000 to take a 10 percent cut; and those who earn more than $50,000 to take a 13 percent cut.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard declined to confirm or deny those figures.
Jordan did not seem as adamantly opposed to other givebacks. When asked whether PFT’s members would be willing to pay more for their health benefits, Jordan said, “everything is on the table.”
Timing is everything
Gov. Tom Corbett and Republican House members want labor changes in return for any extra money or enabling legislation.
In a statement issued last week, Corbett said, “such changes will help stem the financial drain on the school district’s budget so that resources may be redirected back into the classroom for high-quality teaching and improved learning.”
However, Jordan said he is not agreeing to any concessions by June 30, the date by which the state must pass a budget.
Some Democratic state lawmakers argue that it is unfair to make additional funding contingent on labor givebacks.
“That’s a separate conversation,” said state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia). “Right now, it really is about finding revenue so that the schools can remain open.”
In total, the school district wants more than $130 million in givebacks from labor unions. It has also requested $60 million from the city and $120 million from the state.
District officials have framed this as needing a “shared sacrifice” from all the three parties.
“We need to be able to get around the table as adults and come up with a solution,” said Gallard. “A lot of hopes and dreams … are hanging in the balance here.”
Jordan, however, argues that the district is trying to balance the budget on the backs of teachers.
“The greatest amount of money they’re asking for is coming from the teachers,” said Jordan. “Not from the city or the state, who have the legal responsibilities to fund education.”
The power of the SRC
So how will all this get sorted out?
There is one possibility, which involves the 2001 legislation that created the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.
According to state Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia), who helped write it, the legislation gives the SRC the authority to impose contract terms on employees.
In past years, the SRC agreed with that interpretation. The teachers’ union has long disagreed.
In 2012, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the SRC had pushed for state legislation that would give it the conclusive right to impose contract terms unilaterally.
The SRC never got its amendment, and the body’s powers are still unclear. They have never been tested in court.
Gallard, the district’s spokesman, declined to comment on whether the SRC would exercise any power it might have to force a contract.
“All I can say right now is that we’re negotiating in good faith,” he said.
Jordan said that the SRC has not threatened to impose contract terms so far this year.