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District seeking to slash, restructure teacher compensation

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

The School District wants teachers and other Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members to take pay cuts as high as 13 percent, work a day that is an hour longer, and then get no raises until 2017, according to documents that union officials have circulated to members and were obtained by the Notebook.

The documents are presented as summaries of the initial proposal the District has put on the table in contract negotiations, which began last week. The teachers’ contract expires this summer.

The summaries say that the District also wants union members to start contributing to their benefit costs. Both the pay cuts and the employee contributions for benefits would range from 5 percent for lower-paid employees to 13 percent for employees earning more than $55,000. In addition to the wage and benefit cuts, the District wants to eliminate the union-run Health & Welfare Fund that provides dental, prescription, and optical coverage, the documents say.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn would not comment on specifics of the District’s opening position in negotiations. But he said that it "should come as no surprise" that the District would be seeking wage concessions, given its fiscal picture.

"It’s a really, really difficult challenge to weather this crisis and at the same time create the kind of conditions we want for teaching and teachers within Philadelphia," Kihn said.

While declining to comment on the District’s negotiating stance, Kihn said that the District’s "overall goal is to create … an environment that attracts and keeps teachers as our most important employees along with principals. We’re really commited to the teaching profession and to teachers, and we’re working hard to create the working conditions, educational arrangements, and experiences for teachers in schools that will value them as professionals and provide them the flexibility they need to insure student success."

PFT president Jerry Jordan begged to differ.

"In making the kinds of demands the District has made, it does not suggest that they want to treat teachers as professionals," he said. "They want to command and control what teachers do and what teachers say. We disagree with what professionalism looks like."

If the documents present an accurate picture of what the District is seeking, it would amount to a complete restructuring of the compensation system. The District proposal would virtually eliminate longevity and education level as the drivers of raises, replacing it with a system based on performance, evaluations by principals, and the superintendent’s determination of overall needs.

Jordan, a veteran of negotiations with a succession of superintendents, said that "there is no evidence that I’m aware of that teacher pay-for-performance improves student achievement. Perhaps they can provide something in the negotiations to prove otherwise, but I doubt it."

On top of the pay cuts, the District would stop paying “step” raises – which are automatic based on length of service – and also eliminate the practice of paying more for advanced degrees, starting with a master’s.

Instead, future raises — starting in 2017 — would be “performance based increases…based on evaluations from principal. Non-evaluated employees shall be eligible for an across-the-board increase in an amount to be determined,” the union documents said.

Kihn said the District’s approach "is to try to make sure we have the right teachers with the right students, to make sure we can recognize and reward and keep our most effective teachers, to make sure we are able to spend our resources on the kind of support and development we know teachers value and need."

In addition, he said, the goal is "to create the space within schools so teachers can be innovative in instructional practices as individuals and collectives within schools, and make sure teachers have different career options and opportunities for growth, and do it in a way that engages teachers collaboratively to create these conditions and arrangements."

In pursuit of that goal, the District proposal would eliminate seniority in teacher assignment, a cherished union right. Instead, the document says that the District wants to eliminate seniority and voluntary transfers — in which teachers can bid for vacancies elsewhere — and fill all vacancies through site selection. The District proposal would get rid of maximum class-size limits, as well as take away guarantees for everything from faculty lounges to parking facilities to drinking fountains, according to the document.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that although there is an intent to change how teachers are assigned, the District does not intend to have employees forfeit any due process rights.

The proposal, according to the union document, would also give principals control over teacher preparation time, which at one time was a strike issue for the PFT.

The proposal, according to the union, would also take away the bonus for National Board certification, stop reimbursing teachers for missed preparation periods, and conduct layoffs “within the parameters defined by the Superintendent.” The notice for layoffs or any other kind of termination would be seven days.

"Every time I sit at the table, there’s a new superintendent — new plans, same kids, same city," said Jordan. "My teachers have been here, they’ve been working hard trying to improve the outcomes of the kids. I have teachers spending $2,000 a year for basic supplies. If they think these proposals are going to make teaches more professional, they’re not."

Among other things, the union document says that the District wants to eliminate from the contract any requirement that it provide sufficient learning materials for students.

The District is operating with a five-year financial plan that calls for cutting its salary costs by 16 percent in the coming year in order to make ends meet. This school year, it had to borrow $300 million just to stay afloat.

Personnel costs are by far the biggest chunk of its $2.8 billion budget. The proposal, which, according to the union’s summary, essentially eliminates most of what the PFT has managed to win over decades of bargaining, is clearly an opening salvo in what promises to be bitter negotiations.

“The battle has begun,” was the heading of the email, which was sent this week by PFT vice president of elementary schools Erik Fleming to building representatives.

The union summary outlines a separate proposal for non-teaching members of the union, which include secretaries, paraprofessionals, food service managers and others, but the bottom line is similar: heavy salary cuts, contributions toward benefits, and longer hours.

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