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Green says PFT ‘backslid’ in talks; Jordan says it’s the other way around

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

The School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, locked in a legal battle and power struggle over the future direction of the District, returned to the bargaining table over the weekend for the first time since last summer.

Superintendent William Hite and School Reform Commissioner Bill Green said Monday that the talks showed that the two sides are further apart than ever.

In a session with reporters Monday morning, Green reiterated that he thinks his ouster as SRC chair by Gov. Wolf over the weekend is emboldening the teachers’ union to take a harder line — and that the proof was in what happened in the negotiating session.

"They’ve requested additional money and backslid on tentative agreements and other things that we had, and I’m afraid that they are getting encouragement for that intransigence" by Wolf’s decision to remove him as chair, Green said. On Sunday, Wolf named former District principal Marjorie Neff to replace him.

Green would not provide further details. But in addition to money issues, the two sides have been at odds over the role of seniority in school staffing decisions.

"I am concerned that the gulf between the administration, the District, and the Federation appears to be growing wider, not closer," Hite said. "That is a problem after we have been in negotiations for two years."

PFT president Jerry Jordan agreed that the gulf has widened — but said that it is the District that has reneged on previous agreements reached during the talks.

"It wasn’t the PFT that backslid on changing a position that we had previously agreed upon, it was the School District that backslid," Jordan said.

For more than a year, the District has been considering factors besides seniority in staffing schools, particularly regarding layoffs and transfers when a school’s faculty must be "leveled" to adjust for actual student enrollment. In the fall, it asked the state Supreme Court to affirm its right to do this. The court declined.

After more than a year of fruitless talks, the SRC voted Oct. 6, 2014, to cancel the PFT contract and unilaterally require all teachers to pay into their health benefits, which most do not do. The SRC said this would save $50 million this school year, which would be redirected into schools to shore up decimated programs.

The PFT filed a legal challenge against the action, and won in Commonwealth Court. The SRC has appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, seeking to establish that it has the power to impose terms on the union due to the District’s extreme financial distress.

The District is also seeking to cut teacher pay and has already stopped paying for raises tied to years of experience and education levels — so-called "steps." The PFT is eager to resume those payments and to retroactively restore them to teachers who haven’t received any since the last contract expired in 2013.

Wolf is scheduled to deliver his budget on Tuesday. He promised during the campaign to send more state revenue to school districts and reports say he is planning a bold tax overhaul and a levy on natural gas extraction to help raise the money. He also supports the enactment of a fair, predictable school funding formula, which Pennsylvania now lacks.

If he delivers on those promises — a chancy prospect with a Republican-controlled legislature — Philadelphia would likely receive a big boost in funds. In that case, the PFT reasons that the money should go to teacher compensation, including retroactive step raises, and that the sought-after work rule changes are less necessary if the District isn’t broke.

The District faces at least a $30 million shortfall next year, which grows to $80 million if they lose in the Supreme Court over the unilateral contract changes. Closing that gap would just maintain current levels of spending, which all sides agree are inadequate to provide all students with a quality education. The SRC has no power to raise its own revenue, relying entirely on the city and the state for most of its funds.

Green said that the PFT believes that Wolf is on its side. In answer to a question about whether he believed that Wolf backed the details of the PFT’s negotiating stance, Green replied, "At one point, part of the PFT team told us we were about to get new marching orders."

Jordan said he knew of no such conversation.

Even if that is not true and Wolf’s team is not involved in negotiations, his removal of Green in favor of Neff indicates that the new governor is ready to take a firm hands-on approach to Philadelphia’s schools crisis.

Neff, a retired School District principal, was the only one of the five SRC members who adhered to the new governor’s wishes last month in voting not to approve a single new charter school among 39 applicants.

Wolf doesn’t think the District can afford them. Republican leaders had pressured the SRC to approve all qualified applicants.

The SRC approved five charters; Green voted in favor of seven.

Green repeated Monday that he still considers himself chair of the commission, believing Wolf had no authority to remove him, and that he will take the case to court at his own expense.

At the same time, he said, he and Neff "have a terrific working relationship, and I won’t insist on having the gavel or anything."

Green also said that despite his demotion, he will not resign his seat on the commission.

"I promised Bill Hite I’d be his blocker and tackler for the length of my term, and I have a commitment to him," Green said. "I certainly would not be comfortable giving Gov. Wolf at this point a seat at the table."

If Green were to resign, Wolf would be able to appoint a new member.

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