SRC sets meeting on Hite's plan to reopen schools

Philadelphia public school superintendent William R. Hite, Jr. addressing a gathering to principals at Fels High School in lower northeast section of the city on Monday, August 12, 2013. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Philadelphia public school superintendent William R. Hite, Jr. addressing a gathering to principals at Fels High School in lower northeast section of the city on Monday, August 12, 2013. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Posted: August 16, 2013

With less than 48 hours until the funding deadline set by Philadelphia's schools chief, the School Reform Commission has called a meeting Thursday to consider actions he says will give him more flexibility to run schools whenever they open.

Word of the special session came amid signals from city, state, and school officials that they were still working to meet what a Corbett administration aide called Friday's "doable" deadline and open the schools Sept. 9, but they weren't there yet.

Because the district is still facing a deficit of more than $270 million and reeling from massive layoffs, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he would ask the SRC to suspend parts of the state school code dealing with seniority so that employees who are recalled can return to the schools where they worked in June.

"We are in an untenable position," Hite said Wednesday in an interview. "We have an ongoing fiscal crisis, and that means that the district both in the short term and the long term will continue to grapple with a budget that does not adequately resource schools."

With the clock ticking down to Hite's Friday deadline, he said the district was no closer to securing a $45 million grant from the state or a pledge of $50 million from the city. But all sides said talks over release of those funds were continuing.

"The mayor will continue working on a solution through the night and will make a determination of next steps tomorrow," Mark McDonald, Mayor Nutter's spokesman, said late Wednesday in an e-mail.

Hite said last week that unless the city gave assurances by Friday that it would provide the $50 million, the district will postpone the scheduled Sept. 9 opening of schools, open just a few that day, or operate on half-day schedules.

The superintendent said he had not spoken to Gov. Corbett since the Republican governor and his budget czar rejected Democratic legislators' appeals Tuesday to release the $45 million and said the state grant was dependent on the district's obtaining concessions in its teachers' union contract.

Hite said he was not surprised by Corbett's statements.

"It was pretty clear," Hite said. "It was a repeat of what had been said earlier."

Tim Eller, spokesman for acting state Education Secretary William E. Harner, who will decide whether the concessions meet state criteria, said talks about the grant were proceeding.

Eller said state and city officials have been trying to reach an agreement that will satisfy the criteria for obtaining the $45 million. Those broad criteria, as written into legislation last month, call for the district to begin "reforms that will provide for the district's fiscal stability, educational improvement, and operational control."

To help deal with the deficit, Hite is also seeking more than $120 million in savings and concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents about 15,000 teachers and staff in the district.

Though Corbett has praised Hite's push to get changes in labor contracts, especially when it comes to seniority, Eller said Wednesday that the state was neither insisting on specific concessions nor looking for an exact amount of savings before it releases the $45 million.

"It's the whole district. The entire operation needs to be looked at. Cost-saving efficiencies need to be realized," Eller said. "The largest chunk is labor costs - a piece of the whole puzzle. . . . The teachers' union needs to be part of the solution."

Eller credited the district with having worked hard on savings issues and with having taken several important steps in recent months to reduce costs and make improvements, but he said it needed to do more. He expressed optimism that a resolution could be reached soon.

"This is doable by Friday, absolutely," Eller said. "Clear minds have got to come together to seal the deal - ultimately it impacts the students."

Meanwhile, Hite said there had been "no movement" resolving a dispute between Nutter and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke that has kept the city's $50 million out of reach.

Under a state plan approved in Harrisburg last month, the city would borrow $50 million against future collections of its extra 1 percent sales tax. Clarke and Nutter are at odds over how much of the revenue from that tax should go to schools and how much to pensions after July 1, 2014.

The city cannot assure the district that it will receive the $50 million until that dispute is settled.

"The good part about it is, they both understand the urgency, and both are trying to resolve this issue," Hite said of Nutter and Clarke. "That is something they are working through collectively."

Clarke spokeswoman Jane Roh said in a statement Wednesday night that the council president had been working "nonstop" to get colleagues' consensus on solving the issue.

No matter if or when the district obtains the various funds, Hite said, it still needs greater flexibility to manage schools during its money crisis. That is why the SRC called its Thursday meeting.

Hite said that at the 3 p.m. session, he would ask the board to consider suspending parts of the school code, as is permitted during a fiscal crisis by the law that led to the state's 2001 takeover of the district.

Hite said those steps were not part of persuading the Corbett administration to release its funds but were "to staff buildings as appropriately as we can with the resources we have."

Among other things, Hite will make the case for suspending portions of the code to make it easier to place employees where they are needed without regard to seniority, omit annual pay increases for professional employees, and hire licensed nurses who are not state-certified as school nurses.

All of which drew the ire of PFT president Jerry Jordan. He vowed that his union would fight those efforts.

"By seeking to suspend work rules even as we talk every day at the bargaining table," Jordan said Wednesday in a statement, "they are negotiating in bad faith and seeking to subject school employees to the bad old days of staffing decisions based on patronage and favoritism."


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha. woodall@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Troy Graham contributed to this article.

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