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PFT wins arbitration on counselors; District vows appeal

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

An arbitrator has sided with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in a dispute over the School District’s layoffs of counselors and the way they were rehired and placed.

The School District said it would appeal the decision to the Court of Common Pleas.

If upheld, the decision, by arbitrator Ralph H. Colflesh, could result in the return of a full-time counselor to every school by the start of the next school year and a reshuffling of current counselors to different schools, based on seniority.

In 2013, the District laid off all of its 283 counselors and ultimately recalled all but 36 of them. It conducted the recall based not on seniority, as the PFT contract calls for, but based on the District’s determination of the needs of the schools in which they worked.

Colflesh also ruled that the laid-off counselors must receive back pay.

Because the District reduced the workforce, many counselors ended up splitting their time among several schools, which counselors, teachers, and parents complained was wholly inadequate.

Saying that he upheld the PFT’s argument "in its entirety," Colflesh wrote, "By way of remedy, the District is directed to pay counselors who, according to their seniority, should have been recalled in the fall of 2013 at their rate of pay for all the days they remained on layoff following the date they should have been recalled. The District is further ordered to offer re-assignment in seniority order to counselors who were recalled or who should have been recalled to positions in schools of their choosing."

According to the budget adopted last month by the School Reform Commission, the District had 209 counselors in the fiscal year that just ended; as of December, just 186 were working in schools. The budget says it is planning on 205 counselors for fiscal 2016.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the ruling, if upheld, will cost $3.4 million next fiscal year.

"We’re not disagreeing with the issue of having a school counselor in every school," Gallard said. "It’s an issue of finance." With the District now operating on a shoestring, he said, "that money has got to come from somewhere."

He also said that the order allowing counselors to choose their placements would cause disruption as they move around.

"We believe the best way to staff schools is based on the needs of students rather than the preference of adults," he said.

PFT president Jerry Jordan said that it is actually the union that is putting students’ interests first.

"Last fall, students at schools like Central High School had to wait up to two weeks to see a counselor for help with college applications," said PFT president Jerry Jordan. "Not one of the actions taken by the District against the PFT was in the best interest of the children or school employees.

“The District has adopted an aggressive ‘command and control’ policy that has produced nothing but additional costs to Philadelphia’s taxpayers. It is past time for the District to rededicate itself to dialogue, collaboration and good faith negotiation so we can create better learning environments for children.”

The union’s contract expired in 2012 and was extended for one year. The two sides have been unable to reach an agreement since then. Teachers haven’t had a raise since January 2012.

The ruling is the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the District in its efforts to disregard the PFT contract. District officials have asserted the power to do so under provisions in the state takeover law governing Philadelphia schools.

In October 2014, the SRC sought to unilaterally cancel the contract and get teachers to pay into health benefits, which it said would redirect $50 million back into schools. The PFT challenged that move in court and won. The District has appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court.