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Countdown, Day 27: Philly’s elected officials want $45 million now; Zogby says no

Photo: Dale Mezzacappa

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

[Updated with further reaction, 6:50 p.m.]

The city’s legislative delegation, Mayor Nutter, and City Council leaders joined Tuesday in urging the state to immediately release $45 million in state-authorized dollars to the District so that schools can open on time.

They sent to Gov. Corbett a list of reform accomplishments that they say fulfills the state’s requirements for release of those dollars. In passing the fiscal code in June, state legislators stipulated that the School District must implement "operational, educational and fiscal reforms" deemed by the state’s education secretary to be sufficient before money appropriated by the state for city schools can be released.

But state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby immediately said that wouldn’t happen. He issued a statement that notwithstanding the nine specifics outlined in the letter, major changes in the District’s contract with the teachers’ union are required.

“A new collective bargaining agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that makes substantial progress toward achieving the fiscal savings and academic reforms set out by CEO Hite and the School Reform Commission must be in place before any new funding is released," Zogby’s statement said.

In a later interview, Zogby said it was disingenuous for the legislators to want credit for reforms that had already happened before the state budget was passed. The reforms listed included the 24 school closings, the conversion of low-performing schools to Renaissance charters, the creation of a virtual school, and various efficiencies in transportation, utility use, and other areas.

"When the legislative language was being crafted and moving through the process here, everyone was well-aware that the SRC had already taken a number of steps to address the District’s financial challenges," he said. "This notion of somehow taking credit for things that already happened … is off base."

Zogby said the clear answer to assure that schools open on time is for the City Council to get busy and pass the extension of a 1 percent sales tax and then borrow $50 million against it this year — part of the contorted bailout plan for the District devised in Harrisburg. Superintendent William Hite has said that without access to at least $50 million by this Friday, schools won’t open on time because he doesn’t feel it would be safe to open them without adequate staff.

Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke disagree on the sales tax solution, however. Nutter reluctantly accepted the deal that would divert $120 million in revenue from the sales tax extension to the schools, starting in 2014. Clarke said he wants to use much of that money to help solve the city’s looming pension crisis. The mayor and City Council had wanted a $2 cigarette tax, but Harrisburg failed to act on that option.

Zogby said that although he sympathizes with the city’s pension woes, the school crisis is more immediate.

"There’s an immediate crisis with schools. It’s like a house is burning and people want to save water for spring gardening. I’m not dismissing out of hand the city’s challenges with the pension, but it seems to me crisis involving the kids is more immediate and important than long-term funding crisis with pensions."

At the press conference, Clarke kept saying "stay tuned" as to how close he and the mayor were on a solution to the disagreement regarding the plans for additional city funding. He said an announcement of a deal could happen as soon as Wednesday.

The rhetoric at the press conference got heated. State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams said that schoolchildren and parents were being "held hostage" by the state. Williams, the Senate Democratic whip and a vocal supporter of charter schools, said that it was unprecedented for the state to require an acceptable labor agreement from a specific union before releasing money that has already been budgeted.

"It’s inappropriate to tie money that has been appropriated and funded and hold it back and pretend it’s fair to do that," he said.

Plus, Williams said, the deal to free up the $45 million — which is coming because the federal government has stopped demanding reimbursement from the state for past welfare overpayments — was negotiated by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who, like all the officials at the press conference, is a Democrat. Now, he said, the money is being held up to fulfill what he called a political agenda on the part of the Republican governor.

In any case, Sen. Vincent Hughes said that in the legislation, "There was no language that refers to the $45 million as being the last in."

Zogby vehemently disagreed.

"It was always clear that the state money would be the last money in," Zogby said in the interview. He said that the state only wants what Hite and the School Reform Commission are asking for from the PFT, including changes in seniority rules that will allow principals to assemble their own teams of teachers.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that neither Hite nor SRC chair Pedro Ramos would comment on whether they support the position that the $45 million should be released before PFT contract negotiations are concluded. He said that Hite and Ramos are "agnostic" as to where the money comes from as long as they get the money by Friday.

Hite and the SRC want efficiencies in benefits, which for the PFT alone cost the District $212 million in 2012, and across-the-board pay cuts, which they say will yield most of the $133 million they are targeting in labor savings. But they also want to restructure the entire compensation system — stopping automatic raises based on longevity and education level with an unspecified "performance-based" pay scale.

That would make Philadelphia the only district in the Commonwealth that does not pay its teachers for additional degrees and certifications, throwing into the great unknown what that will do for teacher recruitment and retention, which are already a problem in the city.

Zogby said it would be premature to speculate on what, exactly, will satisfy the state. Although acting Secretary of Education William Harner is the official that will have to officially certify the reforms and release the money, Zogby said he was speaking for the administration.

The leadership of the teachers’ union, for its part, has been largely silent, but has been holding regional meetings for its members around the city this week. Sources said PFT officials have been telling members that the two sides are very far apart on reaching any agreement, although negotiations are proceeding daily. The contract expires on Aug. 31, and schools are scheduled to open on Sept. 9.

The PFT has been holding rallies outside schools and will hold one by Harding Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia on Wednesday. It is also planning a major demonstration on Aug. 22 that will start at the Comcast building, sources said.

In a statement, PFT president Jerry Jordan said that "chronic lack of resources has brought this crisis to our schools, not work rule provisions in collective bargaining agreements. Parents of Philadelphia public schoolchildren should be outraged that Harrisburg is holding their education for ransom in order to force reforms that will do nothing to improve education."

Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership called for the city to extend the sales tax to allow for the $50 million in borrowing, and for the District and PFT to come to an agreement that will release the state’s $45 million. PSP lobbied Harrisburg to make any contribution to city schools contingent on labor reforms, especially changes in seniority rules that give principals and schools more leeway in choosing their staffs.

While saying that borrowing is not ideal, Gleason said in a statement that the District needs the money. He added, "It especially needs the $45 million in onetime funding from the state that is contingent on enacting much-needed reforms. It also very much needs those reforms, especially those that ensure teachers are working in schools and classrooms that are the best fit for their skills and experience."

Read additional reporting on this story at NewsWorks.

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