This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
[Updated, 3:30 p.m. with additional quotes from Charles Zogby]
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan held a press conference Wednesday morning to announce that the union is willing to forgo a salary increase — at least for one year — and "make changes to our health care and benefits" in order to find savings that will allow positions to be restored to the schools.
"We know the current staffing levels cannot assure parents, students and employees that schools will be safe and more than just functional," Jordan said. He said he was particularly upset about split grades, the lack of counselors and libraries in every school, and enough support personnel and secretaries.
He didn’t attach any dollar amounts to the benefits changes, and the School District immediately issued a statement saying that the offer "falls well short" of the $103 million in savings that it wants from the PFT.
"We clearly have a ways to go on both economics as well as on important educational reforms that will provide the type of learning environments our children deserve," the District statement said.
Gallard declined to address the question of whether this offer was enough to start restoring some additional personnel immediately, as Jordan said he hoped would happen and as advocacy groups have been demanding.
Jordan is holding a membership meeting Monday night. Asked if there was a possibility of a strike vote, he said, "That is not my intention."
The back-and-forth between the union and the District is an unprecedented public airing of bargaining positions betweeen the two parties before the contract is settled. Asked about this, Jordan said, "These are unprecedented circumstances we are in."
Pennsylvania Budget Secretary Charles Zogby told NewsWorks that Jordan’s statement is not enough to shake loose the $45 million that the state has appropriated but is withholding pending acceptable union concessions.
Later, he told the Notebook: "As I said before, we’d be looking for substantial progress to be made toward the SRC’s savings and reform goals. That’s still to me the formula. I don’t know exactly what that is or what combination of savings and reforms that may be, that’s for the parties to negotiate. But we are looking for substantial steps toward meeting those goals."
Most PFT members still don’t contribute to their health care premiums, but as a result of provisions in the current contract, some will start contributing either 3 or 5 percent, depending on their health plan and hire date.
In addition to savings from health benefits, the District is seeking pay cuts ranging from 5 to 13 percent. Jordan said that as far as he was concerned, pay cuts were not an option, but everything else regarding wages and benefits was on the table.
District officials have said that pay cuts are necessary for savings to close its $304 million gap and that a freeze won’t do it. Neither side has offered figures on how much could be saved if union members contributed 10 percent or more to their health care costs, as some other local districts do.
By a pay freeze, Jordan was not advocating a freeze in the so-called "steps," in which teachers get automatic raises based on length of service and degrees attained.
Instead, he was saying the PFT would not ask for an across-the-boad percentage increase. The last PFT increase was 3 percent in January 2012.
PFT members now get automatic step increases each year up to year 10, and additional increments for master’s degrees, master’s plus 30 credits, master’s plus 60 credits (the so-called senior career teacher), and a doctorate. The Philadelphia step system tops out after 10 years of experience, while in many other districts in the area they continue longer.
In the negotiations, the District wants to get rid of steps entirely and stop paying teachers for accruing time and degrees. In an interview on Tuesday, Hite reiterated that research indicates that these advanced degrees do not correlate with higher student achievement.
"An advanced degree or an additional degree doesn’t create any substantial difference, creates no difference whatsoever," he said. Hite added that he didn’t think his own doctorate studies made him a better teacher.
"I improved my craft talking to other teachers, reviewing data, analyzing student work. … That was more helpful than what I learned in … higher education," he said.
Almost all unionized school districts in the country, however, reward teachers based on the step system.
The School Reform Commission said that it wants to replace it with one in which teachers get raises based on performance, although it hasn’t specified what that kind of system would look like. Elements of performance pay have been implemented in some unionized districts, but rarely by supplanting the dominant salary structure. "Merit" pay is used in many charter schools.
Hite said in the interview that he hoped such a performance pay system could be worked out with the union leadership. Asked if he was willing to engage in such a discussion, Jordan said, "Yes."
At the press conference, Jordan continued to call out Gov. Corbett for underfunding schools and Mayor Nutter for failing to stand up for him and demand more revenue.
"What we know is that we need to quickly find a way to restore those services to kids," Jordan said. "We just cannot continue to inch along and think we are going to be prepared to have staff and buildings by Sept. 9."
Besides the PFT, the District is negotiating with three other unions — representing principals, school police, and cafeteria workers and noontime aides — and is looking for an additional total of $30 million in savings from them.
The School District of Philadelphia faces an unprecedented situation – uncertainty over whether it will be in a position to open safe and functioning schools in September.
This feature, appearing each weekday, is an effort to highlight developments and motivate action as we get closer to the beginning of the school year. We encourage readers to send us information about both concerns and breakthroughs to firstname.lastname@example.org.