District, Philadelphia teacher's union talks could go 'nuclear'

Bill Green (right), chairman of the School Reform Commission. His tough talk helped get concessions from the principals' union.
Bill Green (right), chairman of the School Reform Commission. His tough talk helped get concessions from the principals' union. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 25, 2014

For the city's 11,000-member teachers' union, the clock is ticking.

Budget season is closing in, the struggling Philadelphia School District has a $14 million hole to fill this school year, and it needs $440 million in new funds for next year.

But most significantly, the district has signaled it is willing to use its "nuclear option" - invoking special powers bestowed by the state law that created the School Reform Commission - to get what it wants from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has publicly said he must have work-rule changes in order to compete with charter schools.

Last week, the SRC signed off on a contract with its principals' union that included significant givebacks - salary cuts of 16 percent, contributions toward benefits, and weakened seniority rights.

Robert McGrogan, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators' (CASA) local, said he took the deal to his members this month in part because he believed if he did not, the district would impose terms sooner rather than later.

Bill Green's joining the SRC was a pivot point, McGrogan said: Green has publicly suggested the commission has not been aggressive enough in using its special powers, but the winds have now shifted.

If Green is going to take drastic action, McGrogan said, "he's not going to wait to do it."

Green, McGrogan said, "is coming with a gun out."

In an interview, Green said there was no single factor that resulted in a CASA settlement, but that he was pleased with the principals' deal.

"As leaders, they recognize they need the flexibility with teachers they provided to Dr. Hite and his team," Green said of the principals. "They led by example, and we look forward to working with them to change outcomes for the 118,000 children in non-performing schools. When the PFT makes that their goal rather than excessive benefits and salary and impossible work rules, those children will have a chance at success."

PFT president Jerry Jordan has said the principals' contract had no bearing on his negotiations, and though he is "willing to negotiate many contract provisions," as he said in a recent letter to his members, he will not accept salary reductions.

Jordan, on Sunday, also said the district's insistence on eliminating contract provisions that provide for counselors, nurses, and librarians in schools were non-starters for the PFT.

"We won't be complicit in that," Jordan said. "Those things are bad for children."

The district's initial proposal called for a 13 percent pay cut for most employees.

Jordan laughed at Green's suggestion that teachers' salaries and benefits were too high.

"I don't know how he can describe the salaries that teachers make in Philadelphia as excessive," Jordan said. Currently, teachers' base salary is between $43,000 and $90,000, depending on experience and education.

The teachers' contract expired in August, and talks are moving painfully slowly, because, for the PFT, the status quo is far preferable to any deal that's acceptable to the district, sources say.

Jordan rebuffed the notion that the PFT was dragging its feet: "There is no effort to avoid reaching a settlement."

The sources said the PFT had offered some work-rule changes at the bargaining table, but nothing near what the district says it must have: giving principals absolute authority over hiring and firing staff; weakening seniority; and halting the practice of higher pay for advanced education, among other shifts.

State law prevents the union from striking - in fact, teachers who strike can have their teaching certificates revoked.

And if the district does impose a contract, expect the PFT to immediately challenge that action in court. Act 46, the takeover law, means a challenge would go straight to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Unions have said they do not believe that state law would hold up in court.

"Certainly, there will be a court challenge" if the district imposes terms, Jordan said. "We will decide what our next steps will be."


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