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Philadelphia school employee unions on the defensive

Market-based education reform has not been kind to labor

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The impact on Philadelphia’s school employee unions of the state takeover, the growth of charter schools, and the No Child Left Behind law has drawn little media attention. But the largest of those unions, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), has lost some 3,000 members.

Meanwhile, Local 1201 of the Service Employees International Union, representing School District maintenance workers, has seen cleaning jobs at 22 high schools contracted out to a private company.

The trend toward school privatization in Philadelphia gained momentum in the mid-1990s when the administration of Republican governor Tom Ridge and the Republican-dominated state legislature passed a series of bills that enabled the creation of charter schools, provided for state takeover of public schools, and expanded the scope of contracting out of school services. The school takeover law also hobbled the PFT by restricting the scope of bargaining, imposing harsh penalties for strikes, and allowing for the imposition of a contract.

Here is a closer look at how the District’s two largest unions have been affected by these types of developments.

PFT: education quality, job loss, safety are issues

The rapid growth of charter schools in Philadelphia has cost the PFT over a thousand teacher positions. Charters have reduced public school enrollment by an estimated 26,000 students (roughly a 12 percent decline), significantly reducing teacher allotments for regular District schools.

Few charters have union contracts. While charter school employees can organize in unions, they cannot belong to the parent union local in the School District.

Teacher pay in charter schools is notoriously low. A 2003 study by the American Federation of Teachers found that in Pennsylvania, teacher salaries in charter schools averaged over $14,000 less than salaries in host school districts. A study on charter school personnel policy by the conservative Fordham Foundation found that charter schools rarely granted tenure, featured longer work days and, in many cases did not award salary increases for seniority, accumulation of degrees or college credits.

Besides charters, another source of concern for the teachers’ union is the outsourcing of school management in Philadelphia. The PFT was part of the broad movement that opposed the privatization of school management after the state takeover in 2001. Teachers also voted with their feet following the awarding of dozens of District schools to education management organizations (EMOs) in 2002. Many teachers exercised their option to transfer to other schools.

Staff in EMO schools have remained union members and, according to PFT Special Assistant to the President Dee Phillips, the relationship is for the most part no different from the regular District schools. Nevertheless, a number of tensions remain.

One key issue for the union is that in the first year of the state takeover some of the school managers, notably Edison, eliminated most Non-Teaching Assistant (NTA) positions. District CEO Paul Vallas, responding to concern about chaotic conditions in these schools, restored the positions, but has subsequently urged principals to reduce the numbers of NTAs. Almost 500 NTA positions have been eliminated over the last five years. Some have been replaced with lower paid, part-time Student Support Assistants (SSAs).

Phillips commented, “They save money at the expense of children’s safety.”

At the same time, other SSA positions have been eliminated because many SSAs do not have the education credentials to meet new eligibility standards to work in classrooms under the No Child Left Behind law. SSAs frequently live in the school’s neighborhood and have ties to children and families.

They are now being replaced by college interns, who are more likely to meet federal standards as “highly qualifed,” according to Vallas.

President Ted Kirsch says the EMO schools were outperformed by comparable schools managed by the District’s own Office of Restructured Schools, demonstrating that the diverse provider model is a failure. Kirsch argues that continuing the EMO contracts would be a “waste of money” and will oppose the EMO contracts’ renewal in 2007.

One exception to the PFT’s general opposition to contracting out is the case of CEP (Community Education Partners), the company that the School District, with the active involvement of PFT president Ted Kirsch, has hired to operate three disciplinary schools serving over 2,000 students.

“We were getting complaints from our teachers about disruptive students in the classroom, so it wasn’t a philosophical argument. We took it from an educational point of view,” Kirsch told the Notebook. CEP’s staff is unionized but in a separate local.

Another privatization experiment affecting PFT members is the contracting out of food service management at 115 schools to Aramark, a large, international food service company. Food service managers under this arrangement remain School District employees. Shelley Snider, PFT staffer who represents the managers, said union concerns have so far been addressed. A problem with implementation of new technology that could have cost 30 managers pay cuts of up to $10,000 has been settled by agreeing to suspend the performance pay provisions of the contract for the year for these managers.

Local 1201 has to ‘give privatization a chance’

In April of 2005, citing concerns about absenteeism and school cleanliness, CEO Paul Vallas announced plans to contract out custodial services at District headquarters and 22 large high schools.

“Let’s give privatization a chance,” Vallas said.

Custodial workers are represented by SEIU Local 1201. Union President Mike McGinley notes that when the cleaning work was first slated for contracting out, Local 1201 actually underbid Sodexho, the winning contractor, by $400,000.

“We gave them 44,000 more hours,” he says, “redid our benefits…looked at using part-time people,” and “offered new language for absenteeism.”

Nevertheless, in June 2005 the School Reform Commission (SRC) awarded a $12.4 million, three-year contract for the cleaning of high schools to Sodexho, a Maryland- based management company, which offered the District a guarantee of 100 percent staffing every day.
Sodexho then subcontracted the actual cleaning work to Team Clean, a Philadelphia-based minority-owned business, which took over the work at 14 high schools. Union members at eight other neighborhood high schools are gradually being transferred elsewhere in the District, and eventually all cleaning at 22 neighborhood high schools will be taken over by Team Clean.

The union has resisted this shift, and McGinley disputes Vallas’ original complaints about absenteeism and cleanliness. Although Vallas cited absenteeism of 25 percent on Mondays and Fridays and 15 percent to 20 percent during the week, the numbers submitted at arbitration, McGinley said, “were at 11 or 12 percent,” and “that included vacation, personal days, workman’s comp, everything.”

District Interim Chief Operating Officer Fred Farlino maintains that actual absenteeism rates were more than twice that high.

The union in turn disputes the charge that the schools are dirty because the workers aren’t doing their jobs. The daily 32,000 square feet per person standard used by the School District for cleaning is a key point of contention, as union officials cite studies that define 25,000 square feet as the average for educational buildings. Delays in receiving supplies and inadequate supplies are also issues, McGinley says.

Currently, according to McGinley, the schools being cleaned by Sodexho have roughly twice the number of workers as those managed by the District,

However, the union argues that this is only possible because the private contractors are underpaying their employees and cutting back on benefits. McGinley criticized Team Clean for low wages, lack of health coverage for family members, and absence of a pension.

“Our workers start at $10.55 an hour, after 6 months they do get benefits, and there is a retirement package,” he stated.

While his union supports increasing contracting with minority firms in principle, McGinley says in this case, “the minority contractors walk away with the bulk of the money. The minority workers walk away with lower wages, minimum benefits, and no pension.” The majority of the School District’s cleaning workers, he notes, are African American women, many of whom are single parents.

The union has assembled considerable anecdotal evidence that problems with cleanliness continue to exist at the contracted schools.

But Farlino countered, “The District routinely receives reports from our principals stating that they are very happy with the level of services they receive from Sodexho.” No independent evaluation of Sodexho/Team Clean performance has been released.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a similar experiment in contracting out cleaning services in the District was eventually cancelled when an arbitrator ruled the contractor was failing to meet its obligations, and the work was returned to the union.