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Where displaced teachers will land is uncertain

Although the contract offers a “right to follow” students, the reality is more complicated.

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

These are days stretching into weeks of uncertainty for hundreds of teachers in the 44 schools slated to be shuttered or relocated under the Facilities Master Plan before the School Reform Commission.

Will their school be closed?

Will they be laid off?

Where will they land?

In recent community forums, Superintendent William Hite stressed that the plan called for “teachers to follow their students” to their new schools. And he estimated that only 37 teachers – a projection based on one teacher per school slated to be closed – ultimately would face layoffs.

“The number of teachers impacted [by layoffs] will be minimal,” he said. With hundreds of new teachers hired each year, he said that any who might be laid off could be optimistic about being reabsorbed somewhere in the system by the start of school in September.

But the District has not shared the analysis behind its projections. And Hite’s remarks came prior to the District’s announcement in January of plans to transfer 2,000 Head Start students out of District-run centers and into community-based sites. This cost-cutting move will impact dozens of certified teachers because many Head Start teachers are also certified to teach elementary school.

“I can’t answer how many teachers will be impacted, and I don’t know how they can either,” said Arlene Kempin, general vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “And now we have those early childhood center closings that are being added to the mix.”

Last year, the District targeted nine schools for closing and ultimately closed six. This year, 37 are slated for closure, with seven more to be relocated. This is on top of about 10 Head Start centers in sites leased by the District that are expected to be shuttered.

“When it affects you, it’s traumatic,” said Kempin. “So many teachers put their lives into their school. They’re part of the fabric of the community, they’ve taught the parents of the kids they’re teaching now. It’s wrenching.”

Until 2011, the District routinely hired 900 to 1,000 teachers per year. That number dropped dramatically starting in 2011-12, the first year of severe budget cutbacks. And some teachers were laid off last year, although most were hired back as the District ultimately brought on about 350 new teachers last fall.

Principals in the schools slated for closure have been alerted by letter that “they may not be employed,” said their union chief, Robert McGrogan.

But, he said, because principals have some “bumping” rights, it was an error to notify the principals in the 37 schools that they were the ones in jeopardy. Because of the reduction-in-force rules, if any principals are laid off, it would likely be ones who are still in their two- or three-year probationary period

“I don’t know if the attrition rate is going to match the job loss rate,” said McGrogan.

Until retirements, resignations, and promotions are all taken into account, many principals’ futures are in limbo just at a time when the District says it needs to invest in quality leadership.

It all adds up to massive uncertainty and upheaval.

Plus, the principals are being put in the unenviable position of “being asked to advocate for their students while starting the process of closing down the school and protecting its physical assets,” McGrogan said.

“How do they do right by their students and still be obedient to the District?” he asked. The District, he said, is “putting my members in the crosshairs.”

For newer teachers, the question is whether they’ll be laid off … again. And the odds are not as favorable as a few years ago, when veteran teachers retired in droves. Now, according to the union, about 55 percent of the 10,000-teacher workforce has five years or less experience. Under the contract, layoffs generally are based on seniority – last hired, first fired.

Teachers in affected schools are taking action.

“It’s hard, feeling every year that your job is on the line,” said A.J. Schiera, social studies teacher, whose students – he teaches an urban education class – have become eloquent advocates for their school, University City High, at several school closing forums. He said he and other teachers are taking a “hunkered-down, get-through-the-year” attitude while hoping for the best.

Kristi Taylor, computer teacher at Fairhill School, a K-8 school in North Philadelphia, said she and other teachers have opted to lobby hard to keep the school open, with letter-writing, a phone bank, leafleting in the neighborhood and other activities. “Some people feel it’s hopeless but I sort of see it as a win-win. We will have done everything we possibly could, we will have done our best,” she said.

Her future is not secure – she’s a veteran teacher but with only four years in the District, and she was laid off briefly two summers ago. “I’m not very high up on the totem pole,” she said.

At the forums and in interviews, these and other teachers fretted about the potential adverse impact on students – on their sense of identity and safety.

In the near term, the teachers’ union faces two important dates, according to Kempin. The first is the School Reform Commission meeting on March 7, when the SRC is expected to vote on the finalized list of school closings and reorganizations. The second is April 15, the date by which teachers need to inform the District that they intend to retire or resign in order to be eligible for certain benefits.

Neither the District nor the union will have a ballpark estimate of where other jobs will open up for the displaced teachers until then.

Kempin has already advised teachers in the line of fire to name the schools they hope to transfer to, in order of preference. The teachers’ contract provides a “right to follow” students to their new school, if there is a vacancy in that school. If there are multiple candidates for the same position, then seniority rules apply, she said.

With so many schools closing, teachers need to know that they may face competition not just from colleagues but from teachers at other schools on the closing list – and from teachers displaced by the decision to close District-run Head Start programs.

Teachers from Meade and Reynolds schools in North Philadelphia, both slated to close, may be in competition to follow their students to the new Vaux Elementary, for instance.

“Dr. Hite has said the teacher will follow the students, and no teacher will lose their job, but we know that cannot possibly be true,” said Deborah Hansen, a lead teacher at Meade. She has questions about her standing, despite 14 years with the District, since she is not in any classroom this year.

Looming over the current crisis is the fact that the current teachers’ contract will expire Aug. 31, with the principals’ contract expiring that same month. The District by both word and action has begun pressuring all its unions on issues including salary, benefits, performance evaluations, and more.

The District’s five-year plan calls for overall payroll to be reduced dramatically, by 16 percent, in the next fiscal year and then decline further in succeeding years.

And last spring, the SRC lobbied briefly for legislation that would give it the absolute right to cancel union contracts and set salaries and benefits. Even without such legislation, the District acted on its own initiative in January to ignore the principals’ contract and withhold a 3 percent pay hike due those building leaders.

Photo credit (second photo): In an effort to help save her school, Fairhill School in North Philadelphia, computer teacher Kristi Taylor (right) organized a letter-writing campaign with fellow teachers. (Harvey Finkle)