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Philadelphia Commission Overrules Teacher Contract

By guest blogger Denisa R. Superville

This post first appeared on the District Dossier blog.

The Philadelphia school district this morning cancelled its contract with its teachers' union—taking the largely unprecedented step to make changes unilaterally to the membership's health benefits, an action the district said could net $43.8 million in savings this school year and bring the union's health benefits in line with concessions made by other district unions.

The School Reform Commission, the state-created agency that runs the school district, made the changes during a special meeting Oct. 6.

The Philadelphia Inquirer said the union—which represents teachers, nurses, counselors and secretaries—did not receive advance notice of the vote. The commission's action is likely to meet stiff opposition in a strong union town like Philadelphia.

The changes will not affect the union members' salary. Based on Monday's announcement, union members will pay between $27 to $71 from each paycheck towards their health benefits, according to the district. The changes go into effect on Dec. 15.

The district said it cancelled the contract after 21 months of negotiation did not yield satisfactory results and after other unions had made similar concessions. (The contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers expired in 2013.)

Since then the two sides have been unable to reach a compromise, locked in a dispute over a host of issues, including whether the district can bypass seniority in making decisions about layoffs and staffing. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to get involved in the dispute in May.

Both the district and the union have had more than 100 sessions, without coming to a consensus. While the district has said that union has not made significant concessions, union officials have disputed that claim, saying that they have offered amendments that would result in millions in savings to the district.

"We are taking this action after the district has cut 5,000 positions, closed 31 facilities, reduced administrative costs to approximately 2.7 percent and cut spending by close to $1 billion and our city and state funders stepped forward to increased recurring funding by over $212 million," William J. Green, the chairman of the School Reform Commission, said in a statement on Monday. "Philadelphia families have made extraordinary sacrifices: students come to school every day in buildings that lack critical resources necessary for teaching and learning. Bringing PFT health benefits in line with those received by other district, city and state employees will drive tens of millions to our classrooms."

PFT officials were not immediately available for comment on Monday morning.

"This is outrageous,"  PFT spokesman George Jackson told the Philadelphia Inquirer.  "We'll take this up with our members."

In a statement, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the PFT's parent union, accused Green of playing politics. 

"Three weeks before the gubernatorial election, this surprise early-morning School Reform Commission meeting ... can only be characterized as Gov. Corbett's well-planned Hail Mary ambush. Corbett's School Reform Commission has amped up a war on teachers and support staff, who have been the glue holding Philadelphia's schools together. Clearly and recklessly, the SRC is trying to provoke a strike—since there have been no real negotiations since SRC Chair Bill Green was appointed by the governor. Green, in fact, has shown by his actions—spending his time and resources hiring lawyers and going to court—that the commission would rather attempt to impose a contract than work with teachers to figure out what is best for Philadelphia's kids."

The district said the savings will be invested in classrooms and will help ameliorate a structural deficit going forward. After the financial turmoil this year, which led to down-to-the-wire budget decisions, the district is expected to face a $71 million deficit next year and is expected to get $8 million less than anticipated from the just-passed cigarette sales tax.

The district said the changes will result in $198.5 million in savings in operating funds and $47 million in federal funds in the next four years.

The changes will momentarily stave off layoffs and salary cuts—perpetually looming threats in this cash-strapped district of about 131,000 students.

Superintendent William Hite said in a statement Monday that the district remained committed to reaching an  agreement with the union.

"The fiscal stability created by these benefit changes will lessen the dire circumstances facing our teachers and students every day. We cannot further reduce central office and school budgets and continue to function," Hite said. "These changes to the benefits package are consistent with those agreed to by nearly all other District employees, including principals, blue-collar workers and non-represented employees. We are committed to bargaining with the PFT to reach a new agreement and will continue pushing for a full, fair statewide funding formula."

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that this is not the first time the district has imposed changes to the teacher contract.

The paper reported that the district will go to court—with the state Education Department as a co-plaintiff—to get the court's blessing that the state law that created the School Reform Commission in 2001 gave it the authority to make the changes. 

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