By unanimously voting to terminate the Philadelphia teachers union contract Monday, the School Reform Commission sent shock waves throughout the city.
The move has garnered bipartisan support of the likes of Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter and Republican Governor Tom Corbett.
But not so from some of the very people the move is supposed to benefit.
In terminating the contract, the SRC will impose health care concessions on the teachers union that it says will save $44 million this year. That breaks down, on average, to $200,000 for each district school to use for additional, badly needed resources.
“While I desperately want more funds in the school, I’m not sure I would have stolen them out of the teachers’ pocket to get them,” said Terrilyn McCormick, a mother of two who’s decried the depleted state of the city’s schools. “So I’m struggling with that.”
As home and school association president for the Creative and Performing Arts High School, she’s seen first-hand how difficult it is to attract and retain top talent in the district.
The School Reform Commission has not just imposed health care concessions, it’s terminated the entire contract.
District leaders say they intend to maintain the rest of the contract terms, and they argue that the per-teacher contribution is fair compared with surrounding districts, but McCormick fears it is creating a lot of anxiety in classrooms.
“The working conditions are very difficult. They certainly are not comparable to any of the suburban districts,” she said. “Places that desperately need calm and stability now have teachers in front of our classrooms all over the city unsure what their future looks like.”
The concessions will mean union members, depending on their pay grade, will pay $27 to $71 per month for single coverage and $77 to $200 to insure their families.
Maureen Frantantoni, who has a son at South Philly High and a daughter at Academy at Palumbo, said she feels sympathy for teachers, especially those on the low end of the pay scale who routinely purchase supplies out of pocket.
But as a person who lives on a “fixed income” and spends $400 per month on health insurance, she said, with some reservations, that the prices the district quoted are “not too much to ask for.”
“Maybe the teachers should kick in some money,” she said. “I could definitely see that, but to keep on saying, ‘the teachers must give this and the teachers must give that‘ … how much can you squeeze somebody?”
That’s a much more measured tone than many have struck. Some Philadelphia Senate Democrats. including Vincent Hughes and Mike Stack, blasted the move, as did Council President Darrell Clarke -– a potential mayoral hopeful – as well as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf.
In a statement released Monday, Wolf chided the SRC, which he has favored abolishing, by writing: “Unilateral action undermines the collaboration that we need in order to develop a long-term solution for schools in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania.”
Joining Corbett and Nutter in supporting the SRC’s action was Ed Rendell, former governor and Philadelphia mayor.
Rendell compared the situation to when he imposed terms on the city’s two labor unions, DC 33 and DC 47, in his first year in City Hall.
“Right now, the school district’s in a position just like I was when I became mayor,” said Rendell in a telephone interview. “They just don’t have the money, and I think the union has to realize that.”
After Rendell imposed terms, the unions went on strike. But 18 hours later, agreements were reached that gave Rendell much of what he sought.
“Hopefully this will be the catalyst for some real hard negotiations,” he said.
Although they have their similarities, the two situations are much different.
By striking, PFT members would risk losing their state certifications, a provision added in the state takeover legislation that created the School Reform Commission in 2001.
The heart of the SRC’s action Monday rests in the interpretation of arguably vague language in another provision of that law.
The SRC believes the law gives it the power to unilaterally break the contract, and along with state Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq has petitioned Commonwealth Court to make judgment on its logic.
The teachers union believes the opposite and said its lawyers are preparing a response.
The court has set no timetable for a decision. Teachers electing to receive insurance through the district are slated to begin seeing pay reductions starting Dec. 15.
Many parents surveyed objected more to the SRC’s manner of business rather than its decision.
Monday’s 9:30 a.m. meeting was announced publicly only in a small bulletin in the back pages of the business section of Sunday’s Inquirer and a posting on Philly.com.
The district also did not update its website to announce the emergency meeting, and public comment on the resolution was held only after the SRC’s five-member panel voted.
Education advocates fumed Monday that this was an abomination of the state’s Sunshine Act, which seeks to ensure government transparency.
“I’m completely appalled by the democratic process, or the lack of democratic process, that happened on this one,” said McCormick. “I can’t imagine the police, or the firefighters union having their contract nullified with no notice, no public input.”
Chairman Bill Green defended the SRC’s action.
“This is a litigation matter and a labor matter,” he said. “And, generally speaking, you don’t announce you’re filing a lawsuit.”
In a show of solidarity with their teachers, on Tuesday, some students began circulating social media invitations to go on “strike” Wednesday morning.
Below is the text from the Facebook invitation:
“In light of the recent PFT contract drop, teachers around the district are talking about going on strike. This is exactly what Corbett wants them to do. If and when teachers go on strike the administration can point and say, ‘Look at the teachers, look at what they’re doing to the students.’
“We students cannot allow this to happen. On Wednesday … students around the district will not go to school. We instead will sit outside of our schools and will not go in until our teachers contracts are restored. We’re striking because every single teacher in the district’s benefits are at risk and being played with through politics.
“We will most likely be asked to disperse and go to school but if we show up in large enough numbers our chances of holding our ground will be higher. If police or other officials react with violence we will not respond. This is a peaceful protest. By the way, Wednesday is a half-day. Tweet #PhlEd and #StudentsForTeachers get the word out people.”