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Philadelphia District and Teachers' Union Locked in Dispute Over Seniority

Two weeks after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to get involved in an ongoing dispute between Philadelphia public schools and the Philadelphia Teachers Union over whether the  district can bypass seniority in making decisions about layoffs and staffing, the two sides are still arguing over whether the district has the right to do so.

The outcome of the dispute could have national implications amid renewed debate over teacher tenure rules following the recent Vergara v. California decision, in which the court ruled that California's teacher tenure laws "deprived students of the quality education they're entitled to" under the California constitution and violated their civil rights.

The Philadelphia debate must also be considered in a local context. The district is financially strapped: Last week, it passed a $2.6 billion budget with a $93 million hole—part of which it expects to fill with $42 million in revenues from a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes and savings from the teachers' union, whose contract expired last August.

Also consider that last year, the district laid off 3,800 workers, 1,649 of whom were later rehired. (Because the rehires were done without regard to seniority, the two sides are currently before arbitrators reviewing grievances related to those actions.)  More layoffs are also likely to come this year, though they are expected to be significantly less than the 1,000 or so that had been predicted in the spring.

Superintendent William R. Hite told The Wall Street Journathat in pressing the seniority issue, the district was trying to be financially responsible, while at the same time giving principals the autonomy to make decisions about staffing their schools. Financial flexibility was necessary, Hite said.

"We're trying to operate more responsibly fiscally and make sure we have a system in place that allows principals—school leaders—to select the best people, not those individuals who have the longest years of service," Hite said. 

Hite said that adhering to the seniority rules meant that, in some instances, novice teachers who displayed a greater commitment to students, particularly those who worked in low-income areas, could be let go before veteran teachers.

The unions' attorney, Deborah Willig, said, however, that skirting the seniority rules violated the terms of the contract, and in doing so, district officials were "operating in their own arrogant, unilateral fashion."

Despite the ongoing debate between the two sides, the district already bypasses seniority rules by allowing principals to consider other factors when selecting new teachers.  

The School Reform Commission—the five-member board made up of state and mayoral appointees that run the school district—made the rule changes for the 2014-2015 school year, allowing the district to make staffing decisions based on "student and school needs." 

The union objects to that policy. After the SRC decision in March,  PFT President Jerry Jordan released a statement that harshly criticized the guidelines.

"The members of the PFT are partners in public education, not indentured servants," Jordan said. "Today's action by the school district belittles every PFT member, and signals an unwillingness to reach a fair contract with the city's educators." 

At the moment, teacher seniority is the only factor that determines who gets laid off in Pennsylvania, according to The Wall Street Journal.  It is one of five states where that is the case, The Wall Street Journal reports

This spring, the Pennsylvania legislature considered a bill that would allow districts to fire teachers for budgetary reasons and suspend teachers based on their performance on teacher evaluations.

Under the bill, teacher performance—not seniority— would guide districts when making decisions about layoffs and furloughs.  The bill cleared the House Education Committee, but was referred to the rules committee. 

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