Nutter angrily rejects teacher criticism

Posted: August 27, 2013

Mayor Nutter is incensed.

That's because he's the target of a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers ad campaign that alleges he sided with Gov. Corbett when state aid to schools was being slashed.

"That's just a lie," Nutter says.

The ad he's talking about features Kia Hinton, a mother of three. "You've let us all down," she chides the mayor in a 30-second TV spot that began airing last week and that appeared several times Sunday evening. "Massive budget cuts starve our kids of the education they deserve.

"The thing is, we can fix our schools. But, Mr. Mayor, you have a choice. Invest in our kids' education, or keep cozying up to the governor."

In a 40-minute Inquirer interview late last week, Nutter, seated at a conference table in his second-floor City Hall office with his educational and financial lieutenants, said education had been a major priority since he took office in 2008. He ticked off the new sources of city revenue totalling $150 million he has helped deliver for schools, and he reviewed his efforts to secure money from Harrisburg.

He spoke as the PFT's contract for 15,000 teachers and staff was nearing its expiration on Saturday. The union's print, radio, and TV ad blitz comes as the rhetoric intensifies. The union has declined to say how much it is spending on the ads.

Nutter does not blame Hinton, who belongs to the community group Action United, which is allied with the PFT, or question her sincerity. "She read a script," he said.

"But for anyone to say that I'm not looking out for kids, that I'm part of some grand scheme to damage public education - that's just a lie," he said.

"And there's not one fact to support that. I have a very strong record on these issues."

PFT president Jerry Jordan defended the ads.

"So much has transpired during his tenure as mayor regarding education," Jordan said Sunday, including closing 24 schools in June and turning some district schools over to charter school operators.

"I don't know how you can take the mayor out of the equation," he said.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has been saying for months the district needs $120 million in concessions and savings from the union to help plug a deficit that remains at more than $220 million.

Hite wants PFT members to begin contributing to the cost of their health-care coverage. And the district has proposed pay cuts beginning at 5 percent based on salary. Salaries for those earning more than $55,000 would be cut 13 percent.

The typical city classroom teacher in 2012-13 earned $70,790 - 41st of 62 districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania, according to an Inquirer analysis. Bucks County's Council Rock was tops at $95,171.

The mayor, too, has been saying for months that the PFT must agree to changes to help solve the district's money crisis. On that score, at least, Nutter is in accord with Corbett.

Nutter enraged the union recently when he said labor was "the only adults at the table who so far have yet to financially contribute to a solution for this crisis. . . . It is time for the PFT to step up."

The union responded by urging members to "let the 'education mayor' know that our city's teachers and school employees 'step up' every day."

Nutter said he was not surprised by the ads. "There has been a growing sense that they were increasingly, as the contract time whittles down . . . getting agitated," he said. "I was anticipating that they would do something, say something, make some kind of attack."

The School Reform Commission's recent vote to suspend part of the state school code inflamed the PFT further.

Members packed that SRC meeting to protest the move, which allows the district to recall nearly 1,000 of 3,859 laid-off employees without following seniority, a bedrock principle of teachers' contracts.

Nutter said the union should not blame him for Harrisburg's decisions. "The state has cut funding for education all across the commonwealth for the last couple of years," he said.

Jordan agreed the state had not provided enough money for district schools but was nonetheless critical of Nutter's role. "As a leader, he has not been speaking out against the lack of state funding," Jordan said.

When Hite said in the spring the district faced a $304 million deficit, he asked for $60 million in new city funding and $120 million from the state. Nutter offered a plan to provide $95 million, including $45 million from a new cigarette tax.

But thanks to the legislature, there was no cigarette tax. Instead, the package Nutter said was "cobbled together" in Harrisburg included a $45 million one-time state grant and a provision that called for the city to borrow $50 million for schools against future revenue from the extension of the city's extra 1 percent sales tax.

Also, Corbett's education secretary must certify that the district has launched enough financial and academic "reforms" to obtain the $45 million.

"That was the package," Nutter said. "It wasn't a negotiation. It was: 'This is what you're going to get.' "

Nutter said he was not satisfied with the deal.

He said his administration would be back in Harrisburg when legislators return next month to press again for the cigarette tax and to advocate, with other mayors and districts, for a statewide funding formula that distributes school aid based on enrollment and need.

As for the PFT, Jordan said its 10-day ad campaign ends this week. But depending on what happens, he said, "There could be more coming."


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

Inquirer staff writer John Duchneskie contributed to this article.

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