Takeover ignites challenge in teachers' union An independent slate says Ted Kirsch, unopposed in 1999, hasn't done enough. Ballots go out today.

Posted: February 08, 2002

With unrest running high among teachers in the state-run Philadelphia School District, a fight is on for the leadership of the teachers' union.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Ted Kirsch, whose team has been in power since 1983, is trying to fend off a challenge by an insurgent group that says the union has not fought hard enough to ward off privatization.

The results could affect the implementation of Gov. Schweiker's school reform plan, with cooperation and morale of teachers and their union leaders being paramount under any circumstances.

Ballots go out to the 21,000 members of the union today, and results are to be announced Feb. 20.

Kirsch, who has been president since 1990, is seeking his fifth term. In 1999, he went unchallenged, the first time that had happened since the union acquired collective-bargaining rights in 1965.

The current challengers, led by Conwell Middle School science teacher Nick Perry, have vowed to block efforts to hire private firms to run the schools, a central part of the Schweiker plan now being pursued by the School Reform Commission.

Kirsch's team asserts that the union already is engaged in the staunchest fight it can muster, filing lawsuits and participating in rallies. It says calling for work stoppages or other disruptive tactics would be counterproductive.

"They're [his opponents] in-your-face, and that doesn't work today," said Kirsch, a history teacher. "These are probably the people who wanted us to strike the first day" during the last contract talks. "They don't have a strategy. It's strike. It's fight."

Perry disagreed. "It's not an in-your-face approach. It's the 'be there' approach. Kirsch is not talking to anybody. The union leadership is just silent on so many issues it isn't even funny. Our whole philosophy is to make the union stronger."

Perry, who has worked in the district since 1975, was part of former president John Murray's team, which lost to Kirsch in 1983.

Joining Perry this time on the "independent" slate are Joe Hill, a science teacher at Olney High School, for vice president; Lisa Haver, a math teacher at Central East Middle School, for secretary; and Bob Fitzgerald, a music teacher at Conwell, for treasurer.

Kirsch's team includes Jerry Jordan, vice president and teacher of English as a second language; Dorothea Bell, secretary and paraprofessional; and Jack Steinberg, treasurer and foreign language teacher.

Among the opponents' complaints are the terms of the last contract, especially a provision that requires teachers to work an additional 30 minutes a day. They say teachers are not being compensated for the extra time.

"That's 5 1/2 weeks extra a year for free," Perry said.

Kirsch said members were not working for free, citing raises won: 4 percent in September, 2 percent in April, 4 percent in December, and 4 percent in December 2003.

The contract was settled in November 2000 after months of acrimonious negotiations and a strike that lasted a weekend. It also included controversial provisions, such as paying teachers based on performance. That provision has yet to be implemented because the union and district disagree on criteria.

Kirsch, 62, of Philadelphia, who has worked in the district since 1960, offered a few criticisms of his own.

"You have a person running for president who has a questionable background," he said. "And Joe Hill? The man's not even a certified teacher."

Perry, 52, of Merchantville, Camden County, countered that Hill is a research chemist in his second career. He is seeking his certification, as are 4,000 or so other district teachers.

Perry was accused in a private criminal complaint by Saundra Ashurst, a teacher, and Sandra Millner, a personnel administrator, of striking them on Oct. 19, 1981, at Lingelbach Elementary School in Mount Airy.

Perry, who denied the charges in court at the time, said yesterday that the incident was self-defense, that someone had hit him in the head with a hammer.

The judge acquitted Perry.

If elected, Perry said, his team would focus on smaller classes, discipline and safety. The slate also will push the new school commission to reconsider consulting contracts recently awarded by the chairman, and urge them to meet when teachers and students can attend. The commission currently meets at 1 p.m.

Kirsch priorities include smaller class sizes, safer schools, more qualified teachers, and legislation to allow teachers to retire earlier without penalty.

Schweiker's spokesman, Steve Aaron, said that the union election should not affect progress in restructuring the school district.

Susan Snyder's e-mail address is ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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