Philadelphia's school district faces a court fight over some layoffs

Posted: June 07, 2011

The Philadelphia School District began its biggest layoff in decades Monday, issuing 3,024 pink slips and triggering its largest union to fight at least some of the dismissals in court.

Common Pleas Court Judge Idee C. Fox issued a temporary restraining order stopping the layoffs of 1,523 teachers until a June 14 hearing on whether the district violated the collective bargaining agreement by exempting 200 teachers from the layoff.

Even as dismissal notices were being delivered, Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, under fire for keeping Mayor Nutter in the dark on a deal to save full-day kindergarten, apologized but said she was acting to help families.

"I made an educational decision which obviously had political fallout," Ackerman said in an interview. "I had good intentions. I'm sorry for whatever embarrassment this caused for the mayor."

Last week, Ackerman put together a plan to pay for full-day kindergarten - which was on the chopping block because of a $629 million budget gap - with federal Title I money. Nutter, who had said he supported giving the district from $75 million to $110 million in new funding, learned of the federal solution an hour before Ackerman made the announcement.

Nutter has called for the School Reform Commission to open its books and give the city much more say in how it spends its money.

In a nine-page letter sent Sunday, Nutter set a Thursday deadline for the district to sign the "education accountability agreement" to formalize the city's oversight and say how it would spend any additional city and state funding. The district would then have until June 15 to supply further details, such as information on contracts.

Ackerman said the district was sharing information with the city, but said she would provide whatever the mayor asked for.

"I have no other choice here," she said. "If he needs to feel more comfortable with some of our information, then we'll give it to him."

She said that she had always thought she and Nutter had a "pretty good working relationship" and that she had spoken to him several times over the weekend.

Asked whether this could affect her tenure, Ackerman said that she needed to "understand what the letter really means in terms of my tenure, my relationship with him."

Mark McDonald, Nutter's press secretary, said, "The mayor is focused on the issues. He's focused on the kids, and he's not getting into personalities or personnel issues at this time."

Council also announced Monday that members would stick around past the previously scheduled summer recess on June 16. A special session has been scheduled for June 23, and Council has until June 30 to resolve the school funding and municipal budget. The city must have a budget by June 30 or it will not be able to spend money.

The extra time helps Nutter as he attempts to gather support for his proposals for raising money for the schools - a new soda tax and a real estate tax increase. Both proposals are to be discussed in a Council committee meeting on Friday.

Nutter met with a number of Council members Monday to remind them that the district still faces a dire financial situation despite Ackerman's move last week to save full-day kindergarten. The mayor is pushing them to pass the soda tax.

An extra week of deliberations also gives the well-organized coalition opposed to the soda tax - including the soda industry, store owners, and the Teamsters - time to marshal its forces.

Nutter travels to Harrisburg on Tuesday for previously scheduled meetings with legislators he declined to name. He will ask them to pitch in with more state dollars for the district.

It is unclear whether the state will help.

In Philadelphia to speak at a charter school graduation, Gov. Corbett said he had met earlier in the day with the legislative leadership and was waiting to see how the state Senate responds to the budget approved by the House that calls for restoring some of the $1.1 billion in cuts included in his March proposal.

"We're still in the early stages of discussion, frankly, as to what the final product will be," Corbett said.

Corbett said he planned to nominate a replacement "soon" to fill the vacancy on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission created when David F. Girard-diCarlo resigned in February.

Corbett said he would use that appointment and another in early 2012 to ensure the district spends state money more wisely.

"I'm reading the newspapers," Corbett told reporters after addressing graduates of Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School. "I'm seeing what's going on down here," he added in apparent reference to reports of an IRS audit and requests by Nutter and other city officials for details about district finances.

Meanwhile, the Nutter administration was focused Monday on the impact of the layoffs "on the consequences to the educational quality of students," said Clay Armbrister, Nutter's chief of staff.

The layoff number included 490 central-office staff who will be laid off at the end of June. The court action affects only the 1,523 teacher layoffs; the others still hold.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that the district's move to exempt from layoffs 200 teachers at Promise Academies, district-run turnaround schools, infringed on its contract.

"We're here to fight to make sure it's done correctly," Jordan said. "No one wants layoffs at any time, but if you're going to do it, do it in the correct manner. Do not favor one group of teachers over another group."

He called the district's handling of the layoffs, with notice given during the school day, "totally reprehensible."

"Children had to see them crying," he said.

And much is still uncertain, with displaced teachers who are not laid off unsure when they will be able to select new school assignments.

Neal Follman, an English teacher at Sayre High School who has taught in the district for about a year and a half, was dismayed when he received his layoff notice about 2:30 p.m.

"I feel like a lot of kids are going to be the ones that suffer," Follman said. "Getting rid of these young teachers who have passion and energy for their jobs is really a shame."

A central-office staff member who was spared from the layoffs called the day "horrible."

"People were crying, hugging, trying to make the best of it, collecting their things," said the staffer, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.


City Council this week will discuss panhandling, the DROP pension program, and the sweet drinks and property tax proposals. Follow Inquirer coverage each day via Twitter @phillyinquirer and at www.philly.com/citycouncil


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog "Philly School Files" at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Marcia Gelbart, Susan Snyder, and Martha Woodall.

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