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Over jeers and shouts, SRC suspends parts of school code

Photo: Dale Mezzacappa

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

Updated | 10 a.m

Entering the overflowing room to a chorus of boos, struggling to be heard above the derisive shouts of hundreds of teachers, students, and parents, the School Reform Commission voted Thursday to suspend parts of the Pennsylvania School Code.

The move, permitted by the law under which the state took over the School District in 2001, gives Superintendent William Hite the ability to call back laid-off teachers and other staff selectively rather than according to seniority. It also lets him suspend the salary scale that automatically awards raises to teachers for each additional year of service up to a certain point. A provision that would have allowed the District to hire nurses who are licensed but uncertified as school nurses was removed.

Hite has said that these moves are temporary and designed to get the District through an "untenable" fiscal position — a $300 million budgetary shortfall that forced nearly 4,000 layoffs and raised the possibility that schools would not open on time this year or with enough personnel.

"Our current staffing structure, as mandated in the school code, does not allow us to prioritize matching the abilities of staff to the needs of schools and students," Hite said, in remarks that could barely be heard over shouts of "Shame" and "SRC resign."

"The school code also limits our ability to staff schools in an expeditious way, which we urgently need given our time constraints," he said.

But the assembled crowd, mostly teachers, saw the move as an attack on their union and their rights and blamed the District’s fiscal straits on the SRC’s failure to stand up to Gov. Corbett’s administration and demand sufficient revenue from the state.

PFT president Jerry Jordan took particular umbrage at Hite’s statement that suspending the code would allow him the flexibility to restaff schools according to the "needs of students" instead of seniority rights.

"What do you think PFT members have been doing for years in schools?" he said, as the room quieted. "You are the ones who determine what school budgets look like, whether or not schools have art, music, physical education … When you talk about needs of students, we have been telling you our children need more, not less."

Suspending the code "is an insult to me, my colleagues, and the students of this city," said Gail Kantor, a teacher at Julia de Burgos Elementary School in West Kensington. Kantor, like other teachers, said that they often pay for supplies and other children’s needs out of their own pockets.

Counselor Ruth Garcia asked Hite how he could possibly prioritize some schools over others in restoring counselors. "Counselors are the front line of mental health services for students," she said. "How can you decide that some students are more needy than others?"

Hite has said that if the District can’t afford to recall all 300 counselors it laid off, he wanted to make sure that those that were recalled could go back to their schools where they know the students, especially with high school seniors preparing college applications.

He said later at a press conference that all schools would have counseling services, but some counselors may have to serve more than one school.

Hite and SRC Chair Pedro Ramos also said later that it was their intent to use the code suspensions "in limited ways" to get through the current crisis, and not to permanently change seniority rules or pay scales — both subjects of ongoing contract negotiations.

"These are extraordinary powers granted to the SRC, and nobody would deny these are extraordinary times," Ramos said. "This is to manage through a crisis, not to produce some big shift."

The District is asking the PFT to take pay cuts as well as restructure its compensation system to include "performance pay" and virtually eliminate seniority in teacher assignment.

Hite also said that he planned to take a 10 percent pay cut himself as of Oct. 1 and ask the nine members of his top staff to do the same.

"I’d like to pay teachers as much as we possibly can, but in this fiscal environment, that’s just not possible," Hite said.

The raucous meeting was held hours after Mayor Nutter and City Council held rival press conferences, each promising the District $50 million that allows it to call back some 1,000 workers so that schools can open on time and function, although still with greatly diminished personnel. Despite the disagreement, Hite and Ramos said the assurances were enough for them to start the process of budgeting the $50 million and recalling the workers.

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, her voice shaking with rage, said in testimony that parents dutifully mobilized to write letters and contact Council members when Hite said the District may not be able to open schools on time without more funds. Now, she felt betrayed.

"All of it was political theater, to justify this," she said. "This was never, never about educating our children. If it were, you would have made the smallest effort to make sure the state money was on the table. But you didn’t even try to get money from the state, money which would have alleviated, if not solved, this crisis."

Gym said that, even with the $50 million, schools will not be adequately staffed.

"You are permitting the woeful unprepared opening of schools no superintendent or educator in their right mind would declare fit or ready for children," she said. "You allow this opening of schools in order to provide pathetic cover for a governor who has not only failed to do his duty but has manufactured and exploited a crisis for political gain."

She added, "You talk about a war for education, yet you fire on your own soldiers who are going to fight it for you."

The District’s $300 million shortfall is due largely to cuts in state and federal aid, most since Corbett took office. The District asked for $120 million from the state, $60 million from the city, and $133 million in labor concessions. But the state’s direct contribution has fallen far short, and what there is — $45 million — is tied up until the secretary of education decides that the District has put in place certain "reforms" in the teachers’ contract.

"We are in this room, in this fight, because the governor of Pennsylvania imposed a $1 billion cut to public schools in this state, and he has stood behind state laws that make it nearly impossible for you to put a balanced budget in place," Donna Cooper told the SRC, her remarks nearly drowned out. Cooper, the director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, was an aide to former mayor and governor Ed Rendell.

Cooper said she agreed with the need to suspend the seniority provision, but that the changes should be made through contract negotiations. She disagreed with the piece that would allow the District to suspend the salary scale that awards raises based on longevity.

"The SRC is not clear about what measures it would use in lieu of the predictable salary schedule currently in place," Cooper said. "Until a clear and fair alternative proposal for how teachers will be paid is presented and discussed publicly, seeking to use these powers will be seen as suspect. Furthermore, effective teachers with experience are likely to look elsewhere to work. That’s not good for our students or for new teachers in need of mentors."

After all that, the SRC voted unanimously, with little discussion. Sylvia Simms, a North Philadelphia parent and grandparent and the newest member of the five-member panel, tried to explain that she has been a longtime advocate for children and wants the discussion to move away from adult preoccupations. But she was largely drowned out by the crowd. None of the other commissioners made any comments before voting.

Almost lost in the din was an explanation of the other parts of the school code that the SRC voted to suspend.

Two of the suspensions allow the District to better manage charter growth and more easily deny renewal to academically underperforming or financially corrupt charters.

"Given the structure of the school code, unmanaged, self-directed charter school growth could force the District into a perpetual deficit," Hite said.

Others would let the District more easily dispose of surplus property.

Corbett issued a statement praising the SRC’s action, saying that it is necessary to assure a safe opening of schools, "which I support."

"All actions moving forward by all parties involved must remain focused on protecting students in the Philadelphia School District and ensuring that they are able to receive a quality education like all children around the commonwealth," Corbett said. “The key remaining piece to addressing the District’s long-term financial and academic challenges remains an agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that puts in place needed fiscal savings and academic reforms."

At the press conference later, SRC Chair Ramos, a Corbett appointee, danced around the question of whether he was satisfied with the deal worked out in Harrisburg to close the District’s budget gap and with the state’s contribution to the District’s needs. Most of the money that comes out of the deal — the extension of a 1 percent sales tax designed to bring $120 million to the schools each year starting in 2014-15 — will come from the city.

Ramos said that the request was "$180 million from our funders," with the "suggestion" that most come from the state because that has been the historical pattern. He added that where the money is actually coming from "is a legitimate point … for debate." Ramos reiterated that the SRC wants the PFT to agree to changes on a par with the District’s blue-collar union, which agreed to a contract that saved the District 10 percent.

As for how the deal works to meet the District’s immediate needs, he said, "It’s unfortunate that, for this fiscal year, things were made so convoluted." Part of the package requires the city to borrow $50 million off the future sales tax increase — the subject of the dispute between Mayor Nutter and City Council.

At the same time, the deal will produce significant, new recurring revenue for the District in the future, Ramos asserted.

He added, though: "This SRC been here a little under two years, and a lot of that two-year period has entailed doing things none of us would ever have wanted to do."

This post was updated with a correction regarding school nurses and a clarification on Donna Cooper’s quote.

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