Philadelphia Federation of Teachers approves one-year contract extension

Emilio Garcia, 18, a former Saul High student, speaks to a rally of about 36 teachers at the School District building.
Emilio Garcia, 18, a former Saul High student, speaks to a rally of about 36 teachers at the School District building. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 14, 2011

The Philadelphia School District's largest union approved a one-year contract extension Thursday night, a pact that guarantees 15,000 teachers and support staff raises in January but that gives the cash-strapped school system some immediate financial relief.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers granted the district a $30 million pass on payments to its health and welfare fund. Overall, the PFT is allowing "payment holidays" of $58 million, with the School District agreeing to repay $28 million eventually.

PFT members will get their previously agreed upon 3 percent salary hike in January, and their current benefits will remain intact through August 2013.

With no adverse impact to members' paychecks, the deal was widely considered a win for the PFT, especially with other district unions forgoing raises.

PFT president Jerry Jordan said that the extension was a victory for both sides and that his members "overwhelmingly" approved it.

"They're relieved to know they will have another year under the current contract," Jordan said. "They're aware of the huge deficit and the financial problems the district has. They did this to help bail them out of a very, very serious financial crisis."

The district's $629 million-plus gap in the $2.8 billion budget forced deep cuts in programs and more than 2,000 layoffs, including the elimination of about 1,500 teaching jobs.

Jordan said the move to grant some financial relief had allowed 788 teachers to be called back since Sept. 1.

The PFT could afford the health and welfare payment deal, which he called a "very different approach," because of "very careful financial stewardship," Jordan said.

Should the fund fall below a "safe" amount, he said, the district would have to make payments to restore it.

But, he said, it was important to consider teachers' bottom lines, and keeping the raises and health benefits was important.

"These are tough economic times for our members," he said.

Jordan had long said he would not negotiate with former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, a controversial figure who left the district in August after a bitter battle over leadership.

But things changed with Ackerman out, Jordan said, and the PFT was permitted to carefully examine district books to determine that the financial crisis was real.

"The bottom line is: The district needed the money. We recognized we needed to do something," Jordan said.

He underscored that the PFT's relationship with the district had been "very, very different" under acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II.

"Dr. Nunery's a gentleman," Jordan said. "He's very respectful."

Still, Jordan said, the district had asked for PFT members to take one-week furloughs, a proposal he rejected.

Nunery, in a statement, thanked Jordan and the PFT members.

"This agreement with the PFT represents a significant step towards achieving needed savings for this fiscal year," Nunery said.

It was not immediately clear how much further the district has to go to make ends meet. Officials had said repeatedly they were banking on $75 million in savings from district unions to close the budget gap.

It's also unclear how the delayed payment will affect the district's bottom line in future budget years. Officials have to eventually repay not just the $28 million to the PFT fund, but also a sizable loan to SEPTA taken out to provide students with transpasses this year.

A district spokesman said more specifics would be released Oct. 26, when chief financial officer Michael Masch updates the budget situation at a School Reform Commission meeting.

The SRC will vote on the contract modification at the same meeting.

The law that created the SRC gives it the power to break union contracts for fiscal reasons, and the SRC had threatened to use that power if unions did not negotiate. But it eventually backed off.

The principals' union has already accepted concessions.

Last month, the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators agreed to delay raises to save 27 assistant principal jobs.

The union representing district mechanics, bus drivers, and cleaners rejected concessions, and the district has issued about 1,200 layoff notices to those workers, saying it would reconsider if givebacks were accepted.

Most teachers who spoke at the PFT meeting were pleased with their new deal.

Earlier in the day, a small group rallied outside district headquarters on North Broad Street to support teachers.

Gerald Wright, a founder of Parents United for Public Education, earned one of the loudest cheers.

"What we're saying today," Wright said, "is our teachers are our most important resource."


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or @newskag on Twitter.

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