With Philly teachers in contract fight, leaders press feds for more K-12 virus aid

Jerry Jordan has headed the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers since 2007. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Jerry Jordan has headed the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers since 2007. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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With a tense labor negotiation as backdrop, local and national teachers union leaders held a press conference in Philadelphia Wednesday to press for more federal coronavirus relief.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, joined Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and a cavalcade of local politicians outside James Lowell Elementary School in Olney.

Democrats and union leaders say the extra aid is necessary to stave off financial disaster for school districts and allow officials to purchase the items needed to reopen classrooms while reducing the risk of viral spread.

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“[We’re] not just fighting for more funding for schools to fix them up. It’s bigger than that. We’re fighting to save the American dream,” said U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Philadelphia), who attended Lowell as a child and whose mother worked as a crossing guard at the school.

Speakers centered the conversation on the HEROES Act, a Democrat-backed relief bill that would funnel $58 billion toward K-12 education. That would be on top of the $13.5 billion in aid contained in the already-passed CARES Act. The HEROES Act passed the Democrat-controlled House, but has stalled so far in the Republican-controlled Senate. A Republican counterproposal, the HEALS Act, would steer more money toward K-12 education, but reserve most of it for schools that open in-person.

Weingarten called those provisions “poison pills.” She and Democratic leaders say schools need direct relief now so they can purchase personal protective equipment, improve ventilation in schools, buy cleaning supplies, and plan to safely reopen.

“We need the resources,” said Weingarten. “We cannot reopen in a way that is safe without those resources. We know what to do, but we need the resources.

School District of Philadelphia leaders also back federal aid through the HEROES Act and have urged constituents to rally for extra support. But district officials did not speak at Wednesday’s event.

Strike now possible

On Aug. 31, the PFT’s contract with the district expired. Jordan’s members gave him another two-week window to continue negotiations, but he has already railed publicly against the district’s bartering tactics. Jordan has claimed the district wants the PFT to commit to a school reopening plan before agreeing to educator raises, which he considers an unfair imposition.

“It’s a false dichotomy that defies logic and devalues educators,” said Jordan.

The district declined to comment on negotiation details.

“We look forward to continuing the conversation with them and finding a resolution that benefits our students,” said district spokesperson Monica Lewis.

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District leaders have emphasized repeatedly that they face a dire financial situation in the coming years. Although state aid remained flat in 2020-21 — a significant victory for Pennsylvania’s public schools — the district still expects to have a budget deficit of over $100 million by the 2021-22 school year. That’s before considering any raises to teacher pay.

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The district and its largest union clashed bitterly over the last labor deal, inked in 2017. For the four years prior, the PFT worked under an expired deal during protracted negotiations. Philadelphia educators weren’t allowed to strike in those years because of a 2001 state law that gave state government more control over the district. With the dissolution of the School Reform Commission in 2018, that prohibition has ended under the new Board of Education.

Now, for the first time in decades, the PFT is negotiating a contract with the threat of a strike in its back pocket.

On Wednesday, labor leaders and politicians nudged the conversation away from those fraught negotiations and toward a sentiment that the city’s leadership can agree on: more federal money for schools.

“This is very hard for everyone,” said Weingarten, the AFT president. “When you saw the mayor was at this press conference today, it sent an unmistakable message that the mayor wants Philadelphia to work together.”

Broke in Philly WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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