Philadelphia school superintendent William R. Hite Jr. knows all about controversy. Since taking over the struggling, debt-mired school district, he has taken positions that have put him at odds with the city's powerful teachers union.
Yet the task before him calls for a lot of radical thinking. Philadelphia's public schools are underfunded, undersubscribed and chronically underperforming, and Hite knows that to fix all these problems he is going to have to tread on some very sensitive toes.
His latest proposal, submitted as part of a plan to win up to $120 million in additional state funding for the district, is bound to be more of the same. To win over Pennsylvania lawmakers who have traditionally balked at providing money for the city, he is calling for an end to teacher seniority. In a presentation of a proposed budget to the members of the School Reform Commission, Hite explains that the state legislators are unlikely to be interested in turning over more money if they think they're signing off on more same-old-same-old thinking.
On the table is a budget so bleak that schools would not have counselors, books, or extracurriculars next year. To add even some of those basics back, Hite and the School Reform Commission have requested $304 million – the $120 million from Harrisburg plus $60 million from the city, with the rest in labor concessions.
Mayor Nutter this week proposed giving the district $95 million by taxing cigarettes at $2 per pack and raising the liquor-by-the-drink tax to 15 percent.
But that still leaves a big hole for Harrisburg to fill. And, Hite said, outside the city, "Philadelphia is thought of as a cesspool."
People believe that the district operates inefficiently, wastes money, and "protects individuals that are not serving children," Hite said.
This isn't the first time that Hite has called for renegotiating the contract between the city and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to take out the rules governing seniority. In his opinion, financial incentives should be linked to student outcomes and school and district performance — and not to the ability to survive yet another year without getting fired.
According to Hite, compensation is only one of the problems that arise out of a rigid seniority system. Also problematic is the strict last-in-first-out rule that dictates which teachers get laid off in case of budget cuts.
Although the district is still a long way from having money in hand, such talk from Hite has at least won the ears of Pennsylvania's Republican lawmakers.
That sounds about right, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for Pennsylvania House Republicans. Still, Hite's publicly tying the breaking of a bedrock principle of unions to more funding surprised him.
"It's stunning and refreshing to hear from a Philadelphia superintendent," Miskin said. "I think we would definitely be willing to sit down and talk to him, and hear his ideas."
Erik Arneson, a Senate Republican spokesman, agreed that a seniority change would help Philadelphia's cause.
"There are numerous members of our caucus who strongly believe that changes like that should take place before additional state funds are committed," Arneson said.