This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Does the School District of Philadelphia have a staffing problem? And if so, what can be done to solve it?
Those were the primary questions zipping around City Hall on Monday as Philadelphia City Council’s education committee held a hearing on teacher retention and recruitment in the city’s public schools.
The topic has clear political implications.
Philadelphia’s teachers have been without a contract for more than three years as they have gone without raises or cost-of-living adjustments. Because the union cannot strike under state law, it has little leverage beyond public pressure. The union has routinely drawn attention to teacher hiring woes and cited them as evidence that the ongoing negotiations have weakened city schools.
Mayor Kenney and Councilwoman Helen Gym — who provided much of the rhetorical punch during the Monday hearing — both benefited from union support during their campaigns and have pushed hard for a new contract.
District officials, meanwhile, said they’ve put a solid offer on the table and cannot stretch much further due to long-term money woes. They also dispute that the contract stalemate has hamstrung the District’s ability to staff its schools.
A person’s position in the argument depends on how he or she interprets the data coming from the School District and the anecdotal evidence coming from veteran teachers — a number of whom testified Monday.
The District has just over 8,000 teaching positions. At the beginning of the year, all but 59 were filled, according to District testimony. Currently, 94 full-time teacher vacancies exist, officials say.
This spring, the District announced an aggressive hiring push and set a goal of filling every full-time teaching position for the start of the 2016-17 school year — a target it has hit in the past. In June, the District announced that it was on track to meet that mark, but by the time school started, 59 vacancies remained.
On Monday, Uri Monson, the District’s chief financial officer, said the number of vacancies at the beginning of the school year was still the lowest it’s been since 2013 and lower than 11 of the last 18 years. He also noted that the District’s teacher vacancy rate — just over 1 percent — compared favorably with the city’s employee vacancy rate, which is 6.5 percent.
The District hired 1,000 new teachers for the current school year and has been able to fill 200 of the 300 teaching slots that have opened since September. Monson said the numbers are proof that “people want to teach in Philadelphia.”
“This is an incredible accomplishment for any business or school district of our size,” he said.