SRC push for more power over unions riles legislators

Posted: June 09, 2012

It was an uncomfortable meeting.

In Harrisburg, the Philadelphia Democratic House delegation had gotten word that the School Reform Commission was shopping legislation that would give it the absolute right to cancel union contracts and set salaries and benefits.

It was a surprise and a revelation.

The SRC has long maintained in public that never-used powers written into the 2001 state takeover legislation gave it sufficient authority to impose terms on unions.

Its members have used the shadow of such powers to squeeze the unions in times of extreme financial distress, such as now - the district has assumed $150 million in labor concessions over the next five years without showing how it will achieve those savings.

Multiple legislators described Tuesday's meeting: The SRC needed the amendment passed soon, and had hired a lawyer to lobby lawmakers.

But no one had approached the Philadelphia delegation, which had previously scheduled to meet with SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos, Philadelphia School District chief recovery officer Thomas Knudsen, and Mayor Nutter.

State Rep. Michael H. O'Brien (D., Phila.), who was at the meeting, said Ramos admitted the SRC was attempting to sell a legislative amendment Ramos needed because current law "didn't give the SRC enough juice," in O'Brien's words.

"He said, 'I need this,' " O'Brien recalled.

That the SRC doubts its power to cancel contracts could be a game-changer for the nearly-broke district. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has balked at the district's demands, and its leaders say they won't negotiate until their current contract is up in August 2013.

State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.), who was also at the meeting, said Ramos blamed previous school leaders for pushing the schools to "the brink of bankruptcy," with "out-of-control labor costs" among the main culprits.

The SRC recently adopted a $2.5 billion 2012-13 budget that will require it to borrow at least $218 million to make ends meet.

Nutter, meanwhile, seemed surprised, and taken aback, at the SRC's ploy, the legislators said. The mayor told the SRC members that he did not know that the amendment to House Bill 1307 - legislation allowing the Department of Education to declare school districts "distressed" - was being floated, even though he has two appointees on the five-member SRC board.

"Delegation meetings are private, and we have no comment," said Mark McDonald, the mayor's spokesman.

Ramos' declarations did not go over well with Philadelphia's Democratic House caucus. The lawmakers were angry with the SRC for making this move and making it without their knowledge, several members said, a political misstep that may have ensured their opposition.

"Old political trickery," Thomas, a 23-year veteran of the House from North Philadelphia, called it. "The delegation was outraged."

O'Brien agreed.

"The hard, cold reality is that of 26 House members and seven senators from Philadelphia, one is a Republican," he said. "Even though there's a Republican governor and a Republican General Assembly, you can't lock out the home team."

Ramos' revelation about the amendment especially rankled State Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.), the normally genteel Democratic chair of the Education Committee.

"Chairman Roebuck lost his temper," O'Brien said. "The even-tempered, unflappable Ph.D. from the University of Virginia became [incensed]. No one had ever seen that before."

Roebuck told Ramos: "This will never make it out of my committee," according to O'Brien, and the rest of the delegation promised it would never get a floor vote.

Roebuck agreed that the meeting was "contentious" and said the SRC's actions were "disingenuous at best."

"I think it makes us cautious as to whether or not we have a trustworthy relationship with the SRC," Roebuck said.

Nutter took Ramos aside for a private conversation, the meeting reconvened, and another House member asked Ramos to drop the amendment.

As O'Brien recalled, Ramos told them he was an appointee of Gov. Corbett and could not act without consulting him. To which Roebuck replied: "Go back to the governor and get the money to fix this." And then the meeting broke up.

Now, Roebuck said Thursday, "the amendment is dead because there's no support within the Philadelphia delegation for it."

Ramos, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed. District spokesman Fernando Gallard would say only: "The SRC is not pursuing any labor-related amendments in Harrisburg at this time."

After the controversial House delegation meeting, Nutter met with the Senate Philadelphia delegation, but Ramos and Knudsen were not present. The amendment was not on the agenda, but came up in conversation.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) was reluctant to go into meeting details, but described the Senate meeting as "amicable" and agreed that the amendment was dead.

"From what I know, there's no support from Philadelphia County members, and I don't think that members on the other side of the aisle have a desire to impose that kind on language on Philadelphia County if we're not asking for it," Williams said. "I don't think it's something that the governor is going to impose on Philadelphia County."

Williams said he knew about the amendment before the meeting, but not from the SRC. Republican senators told him Ramos had been lobbying them for it, Williams said.

Williams, who supports charter schools and vouchers, said he was not in favor of the amendment, although he does believe that parts of the union contracts are unsustainable, particularly pension and benefit provisions.

"I thought it was ill-timed," Williams said. "The public has to be much more in support of it and know that there's a need."

State Rep. Tony Payton (D., Phila.), a sponsor of the original distressed districts bill, was not at the meeting Tuesday and heard about the amendment only in passing.

Payton, who has supported school vouchers, said he didn't "have much of a reaction" to the amendment.

"But if these sort of things are coming up, it's a signal to the people that they should get to the table and be part of the solution," Payton said.

But Roebuck and others from the House delegation expressed a frustration echoed by many district parents and some City Council members - that the SRC seems to be asking for more money from the city but not knocking on the governor's door.

And there's also anger over the perception that the SRC is backing away from any responsibility for its financial mess. The current SRC has been almost completely reconstituted since September.

"The fact that we have that kind of debt is a direct result of the actions of the SRC," Roebuck said. "It's very perplexing to me that everyone throws their hands up and says, 'Well, it's not my fault.' "

Teachers union president Jerry Jordan said he was glad the amendment was dead for now.

"They want to dictate," Jordan said. "They want to silence the workers' voice. With this kind of behavior going on behind the backs of the unions, it doesn't make you feel good. It makes you really, really wary about being able to trust anything that they say and do."


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

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