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District takes steps to outsource substitute teacher services

Officials say too many classrooms are without adequate staffing. The move may bring nonunion teachers into schools next fall.

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

Updated | 9 p.m. (with comments from PFT president Jerry Jordan)

The School District of Philadelphia wants to hire a private company to provide substitute teachers, a move that it says will improve coverage while possibly saving money. It will also bring nonunionized teachers into schools.

On Friday the District posted a request for proposal (RFP) seeking bids on a service to fill about 500 empty classrooms a day, or an average of more than two per school. Naomi Wyatt, the District’s chief talent officer, said that the District is currently able to fill only 64 percent of the vacancies – a poor rate that can destabilize the school day and costs money besides.

Teachers, principals, and other school employees must give up preparation periods or regular duties to monitor the classrooms where teachers are absent. Teachers earn personal days as payback for the lost prep time.

"We recognize that we need to improve the quality and quantity of substitutes available to all District schools," said Naomi Wyatt. "We are seeking a vendor that can provide high-quality substitutes at a 90 percent fill rate."

Wyatt said the current cost of substitute service, including the need to reimburse teachers, is more than $18.6 million a year. The District also wants the contractor they hire to provide subs for other positions, including principals, secretaries, supportive services assistants, and cleaners.

For all but the cleaners, who are represented by 32BJ SEIU, the workers can be replaced by nonunion members. 32BJ has a clause in its contract preventing any outsourcing for the length of its current contract. However, the District wants the vendor to handle the logistics of finding and placing the substitute cleaners, who will remain District employees.

Now, some 1,300 substitute teachers are members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and are paid according to per-diem and longer-term rates specified in the PFT contract. Daily pay can vary from $40 for an uncertified teacher to $180 for a retiree who has worked for 30 days in the school year. There are also long-term substitutes paid on a salaried basis.

Workers hired by a private company may or may not be unionized, Wyatt said.

Wyatt said that Philadelphia’s teacher attendance rate is "pretty good for a large district." The real problem, she said, is a shrinking pool of substitutes – now about 1,000. The rule of thumb is that a district should have two-and-a-half to three times the number of available subs as there are daily openings.

"We don’t have a large enough pool to cover our average daily openings," she said. "The second challenge is that frankly, a lot of subs only want to go to certain schools on certain days for certain positions. A small number is flexible, who want to go often and will go anywhere. We hope the vendor will create a larger pool and find more people willing to go anywhere."

PFT president Jerry Jordan said that he thinks the District has deliberately manufactured a substitute shortage so it could use it as a reason to privatize more services. He noted that privatization of District services was recommended by the Boston Consulting Group’s controversial report from 2012.

"I will be frank, I am afraid that some of the lack of service is contrived to pave the ground for them to send out the RFP," Jordan said.

He said he has heard complaints from teachers this year at many schools, and not just those that are traditionally hard to staff, that they have had trouble getting subs this year. He also said he knew of qualifed subs not being called.

"Outsourcing substitute service really is not going to be best for the schools or best for the kids," Jordan said. "The District has a large pool of substitute teachers they don’t use."

The District’s page on its website about substitute teacher opportunities says that applications for that position are "closed." (Note: District spokesperson Fernando Gallard said Saturday morning that the longstanding cutoff date for new substitute applications is April 1.)

Under the current PFT contract requirements, subs cannot be paid more for taking hard-to-fill positions, Wyatt said. A vendor might be able to change the compensation structure to offer incentives, such as a bonus for taking at least 10 positions a month. "We aren’t structured to pay those kinds of incentives," she said.

Plus, an outside firm can pay more attention to the logistics of recruiting, training, and placing substitutes, Wyatt said. There are only four District employees now handling all the paperwork around substitutes, and the requests to take assignments are done by robocall, not by a person who can form relationships. The companies "have people who all day, all they do is call up subs and encourage them to take positions, they work the numbers and work the vacancies," she said. The vendor would be encouraged to hire from the current pool of subs.

Many subs are retirees, but state rules prevent the District from going to them except as a last resort due to concern about "double-dipping" – receiving a pension while getting paid for working for the same public entity. But if the same people are employed by a private company instead of a district, that restriction is removed.

Although saving money would be nice, "for us, this is a lot about the quality and the fill rate," Wyatt said. "To that point, we have performance standards. … If the fill rate goes below 90 percent, there will be a penalty. … Cost savings would be a benefit, but if cost remains the same and we have a better fill rate, we will be happy with that."

She said the District has sent the RFP directly to "six or eight vendors, and we expect to have multiple responses."

Other districts, locally and nationally, have tried this with mixed results. Camden outsourced substitute service two years ago, but received only one bid. Bethlehem found after seven weeks of using a private company that its fill rate had actually declined slightly.

Jersey City is one of several New Jersey districts that hired the same firm that Camden uses – Source 4 Teachers.

Other big-city districts that outsource substitute service include Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Kansas City, Wyatt said.

Wyatt said she was hoping the School Reform Commission would vote on a vendor at its May meeting so that the new system could be in place by September. The deadline for submitting bids is May 1.

Jordan said that the union would explore its legal options to stop the move, but cannot do anything until a firm is hired and a contract executed.

"Until such time as it receives responses [to the RFP] and gives a contract, we are in a status quo situation," he said. "In the meantime, we are certainly going to look at every legal option that we have."

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