After Nixing Contract, Philly School Reform Commission Fate Uncertain

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan has said that the union would fight the School Reform Commission's (SRC) decision to cancel the union's contract, writes Robert Moran of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

At a news conference, Jordan was joined by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who called the move "reckless, illegal, and immoral". There were backers present as well in the form of a large contingent of city and state political leaders. Critics of the move say that one of the first barriers created by cancelling the contract is the difficulty it will create in recruiting and keeping good teachers in the district. At the same time, teachers are calling the union and asking what steps they needed to take to resign their positions.

A new advocacy group with ties to the Philadelphia School Partnership, a non-profit with considerable financial backing, plans to run radio ads this week in support of SRC's plan, specifically on the matter of healthcare costs. With contracts invalidated, teachers will have to pay from 5% to 13% of their health-care premiums as opposed to paying nothing. According to the district, the change will save $54 million this year, which can be used for educational costs.

In recent weeks, Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, a 501(c)4 nonprofit, was developed to focus on advocacy alone. Mark Gleason, executive director says:

"We decided to make these ads because we need more than a funding formula, we need the district to be able to control its fastest-rising cost," Gleason said.

There is a City Council resolution passed to ask voters whether the state-controlled School Reform Commission should disband and transfer the School District of Philadelphia back to local governance, writes Damon C. Williams reporting for the The Philadelphia Tribune. The chair of the education committee, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, met with union leadership last week to reportedly discuss the union's take on the SRC's unilateral termination of teachers' contract this month. The referendum will be put on the May ballot asking voters to weigh in. Blackwell said:

"We want the voters to have the right to decide about having a local school board."

Before last week's meeting, the union had released a statement reminding the SRC that Philadelphia teachers had already agreed to certain healthcare concessions.

"Last year, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers offered concessions in healthcare savings of $24 million — which included premium contributions — and across-the-board pay freezes of $10 million," the statement said.

As it stands now, the SRC would have to vote to dissolve itself. Solomon Leach of the Philadelphia Daily News says that Sen.Vincent Hughes (D-7th District) is planning to offer an amendment in the Senate, this week, that would give the governor authorization through the Secretary of Education to dissolve the SRC. Several Philadelphia Democrats called the SRC's cancellation of the district's contract a last minute effort to help Gov. Corbett's re-election.

"The public has been very concerned about the SRC for a long time, and they should not be allowed the power to determine their fate because [currently] their fate rests in their hands," said Hughes, who hopes to attach the amendment to a piece of school-related legislation. "They need to get a sense that there are a lot of people not happy with their action."

However, there is little chance that the amendment could be passed in this session since there are only two days left before lawmakers break until January. It will likely have to be reintroduced in the next session.

According to The Notebook, a Philadelphia Public School publication, there are some misconceptions about the wording around the contract cancellation, says Paul Socolar.

"These changes to the benefits package are consistent with those agreed to by nearly all other District employees, including principals, blue-collar workers and non-represented employees."

In actuality, blue collar workers do not have to pay towards benefits as established by their unions. School police and cafeteria workers offer health plans that are free to members of their union.

"PFT health care concessions offered in negotiations amounted to only $2 million."

President Jerry Jordan responded that healthcare savings taken by the union amounted to $24 million.

The monthly cost to PFT members for benefits will be "$26 to $67 for individual coverage and up to $200 for family coverage."

These numbers are about 8% too low, since they were established based on the notion that teachers have two pay periods a month when there are actually 26 pay periods a year.

"The union's Health and Welfare Fund has a $45 million reserve."

Jordan says the fund's balance is only $23 million. The statement was made by district officials who contend that if they take over the fund's vision, dental and prescription plans and they will make them more efficient. They plan to discontinue the annual $4,352 payment per member into the union fund and discontinue the vision, prescription, and dental benefits available now to retirees.

"The PFT has refused to make any meaningful financial concessions. After 21 months, the time has come for them to share in the sacrifices that everyone else has made."

Aside from the union's healthcare proposal and a proposed one-year wage freeze which meant that teachers have not been given an annual increase since January of 2012, there are other sacrifices that teachers have made: staffing extracurricular activities and clubs on an unpaid basis; missing prep times and lunch periods because of under-staffing; out-of-pocket spending for school supplies because of lack of funding; non-paid compensations for tuition fees prior to 2013, which had been expected to take the form of increased wages for credits and degrees earned, but did not due to a District-imposed pay freeze.

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