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Philadelphia Contract Cancellation Sparks Protests, Rebuttals

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Updated

Two weeks after Philadelphia canceled its contract with the local teachers' union, officials in all involved parties continue to seek legal recourse.

In a cost-cutting move, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission unilaterally canceled the district's contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in a special meeting on Oct. 6. The contract change will require teachers to pay for health-care premiums, when teachers of the union previously paid nothing for health care.

The district filed legal action to grant special powers to the SRC, allowing for contract revisions, according to The Notebook. There is a debate over whether or not the SRC has power to do so. The PFT plans to challenge the SRC's contract cancellation in court.

"The manner that they did it in is outrageous," said PFT spokesperson George Jackson, referring to the quickly announced meeting that was sparsely attended. "We're going to fight this." 

The district and the union had been negotiating terms since the union's contract expired in 2013, but had not come to any conclusions. The district then decided to move forward and cancel contracts altogether.

According to a press release written by Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, Philadelphia teachers are paid far less than their suburban counterparts and, much like teachers around the nation, pay thousands of dollars for school supplies every year out of their own pockets. Adding another expense by forcing teachers to pay for health care would continue to chip away at Philadelphia's teachers' incomes, he said.

Jordan stated that Philadelphia elementary teachers make an average salary of $68,600 and middle and high school teachers make an average of $72,200. He also noted that teachers have forgone pay increases for two years in a row.

He said in a news conference after the meeting: "We are not indentured servants."

Parents and other advocates protested last Wednesday to show support for the city's teachers, with some students saying the were worried that the contract cancellation will drive great teachers away from the district. 

In an interview with The New York Times, Keith Dorsey, a parent with a child in a district school, said charging teachers for health benefits "is robbing the children."

The district, however, defends its contract cancellation due to budget constraints. The city faces an $81 million deficit and has been searching for ways to close it. Teachers paying for health care would generate about $44 million this school year, closing the budget gap.

William R. Hite Jr., superintendent of the district, said in an interview with The New York Times: "We have to share sacrifices in order to navigate this challenging fiscal time that we are working through." The district has said that the money would go back into classrooms, providing teachers and students with the resources they desperately need.

Governor Tom Corbett said in a statement that the additional funding will provide the district with "the ability to hire new teachers, counselors, and nurses, and secure educational resources that will benefit the students of Philadelphia." Principals will be able to make financial decisions to increase staff or pay for after-school programs.

Corbett has previously been criticized for slashing education funding. According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, Corbett has cut close to $1 billion from Pennsylvania's education budget. Corbett's critics believe his education cuts are the cause of the fight between the union and district now. 

Both the union and the district are trying to come off as the group with students' needs in mind. While the union stands for teachers' rights and calls for smaller class sizes, the district says this additional funding simply makes teachers pay for benefits, much like other professionals, while giving money back directly to schools. 

[Updated:The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has won a temporary injunction, postponing the requirement that teachers pay for their own premiums.]

Image from Wistechcolleges/Flickr Creative Commons

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