This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
School Reform Commissioner Bill Green is ramping up his rhetoric against the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, accusing the union of stalling on any contract settlement until the turnover in School Reform Commission membership that’s expected in January.
Green, a longtime PFT critic, said the District has offered a reasonable financial package to the teachers that would result in “net raises,” even after restructuring medical benefits so that members contribute toward their health-care costs, which most do not do now.
PFT president Jerry Jordan immediately shot back, accusing Green of “trash talking” and disputing his point that the District is offering his members a financial deal that the union leadership could accept in good conscience.
“We put fair raises on the table,” Green said. “Nobody would disagree that members of the PFT should contribute to health care, like everybody else in America, including all the surrounding teachers’ unions in the suburbs.
“Let’s just face reality,” he added, “it’s not the District that is not bargaining in good faith, it’s the PFT simply trying to wait for a change in membership on the SRC.”
The terms of three of the five members – Chair Marjorie Neff, Sylvia Simms, and Feather Houstoun – are due to expire in January. Their replacements will be appointed by Mayor Kenney and Gov. Wolf, both Democrats who were strongly supported by the PFT in their election campaigns.
Green spoke out during an interview the morning after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the SRC could not unilaterally cut back medical benefits and divert savings into school personnel and programming, which it tried to do in October 2014. Green said he was “disappointed” in the ruling, which relied on a narrow definition of what state law means by a “teacher’s contract.”
Both Green and Jordan said that the last negotiations took place in June, but otherwise they disagreed on everything regarding this unprecedented four-year stalemate. The District and the union, which is prevented by state law from striking, have been unable to reach a settlement since 2012. PFT members have received no raises during that period – not even the so-called “steps” that they are entitled to based on their years of service and degrees attained.
Jordan countered Green’s accusation that the union was stalling with his own theory: that the SRC was holding out in anticipation that the state Supreme Court would support its position that it had the power to impose a contract on the District’s largest union.
“We heard that the SRC and Green were avoiding a settlement because they were hoping to win the Supreme Court case and not have to negotiate with us,” Jordan said. “So that goes two ways. There are lots of things that people are saying that are rumors and inaccurate information floating out there.”
Evident in the separate interviews was the level of distrust between the District leadership and the union that represents its teachers – the very people expected to carry out its most important work of educating students and improving its struggling schools.
On the other hand, the two provided a glimpse into a process that is usually conducted in obsessive secrecy, with no public knowledge of or input into the two sides’ priorities.
The stalemate and acrimony have been costly in several ways, among them an inability to recruit new teachers effectively. Last year, the District was unable to fill all its vacancies, which resulted in thousands of students, many of them among the city’s most needy, lacking consistent, high-quality teaching. Several officials have said that the District’s precarious fiscal situation and the lack of a contract have made it hard to recruit.
What Green says, what Jordan says
Following is a summary of what each says on the major issues regarding compensation and workrules.
Green said that the District has offered the union a package that combines a first-year bonus with later raises, while “restructuring” medical benefits.
“There’s net raises that are reasonable. but we have to restructure the health-care dynamic,” he said.
He said that the union’s Health and Welfare Fund, which the District underwrites through a negotiated contribution level per member, runs a surplus. The District wants to take over the Health and Welfare Fund, saying it can save money.
Green said that the PFT countered the District’s offer with one “that would cost several hundreds of millions of dollars” over the course of the District’s five-year plan and was unaffordable. The SRC has no power to raise its own funds through taxes and must rely on the city and the state.
Although he said that he thinks teachers deserve a raise, Green also said: “We’re not going to get three, four, five hundred million dollars from City Council, and even if Gov. Wolf could get more through the legislature, I’m sure he would like to see some of it used for reducing class size and other aspects of Superintendent Hite’s reform plan rather than just raises for the existing workforce. I don’t see our appointing authorities responsibly agreeing to what the PFT is asking for.”
Jordan said: “The package that he alleges the District offered us was certainly not a package that we would accept, because it did not restore the steps our members have lost over the last three years.”
He said that this is so even though new hires are shown a salary schedule based on the steps “and told they will get salary increases based on their anniversary date.” He pointed out that – unlike in most suburban districts – teachers gain these additional credits at their own expense.
Jordan hedged when asked whether the union was seeking the steps to be paid to members retroactively.
“We have been clear that we need to have steps restored and annual raises, but we haven’t gotten to that point of the discussion, retroactively or prospectively. All the District put on the table was a bonus. … My members will not accept that after sacrificing steps and any raises and any pay for any advanced degrees for four years. I’m not going to take that to the members and have the members vote it down.”
Said Green: “Everybody knows our finances. We can’t go back – there is no way we can afford retroactive pay for the period we missed. We have to look forward. What we put on the table was a one-time bonus payment and annual raises.”
As for benefits, Jordan said that the PFT was willing to discuss modifications, referring to a press conference he gave in 2013 on the subject, before the District sought to unilaterally impose changes.
On the Health and Welfare Fund, Jordan pointed out that the District has trustees that sit on its board.
“They want to take back the Health and Welfare Fund, but it is better managed than the District is able to manage it. It hasn’t been able to manage its own finances.”
Green and other District officials have said in the past that they want to all but eliminate seniority privileges in teacher assignment so that principals and school leadership teams can decide who will work in a building. For more than a decade, there has been so-called “site selection,” in which teachers must interview for openings in schools, rather than the most senior qualified teacher who wants it claiming the position as was true in the past.
Although site selection has been a part of the contract, the District has carried out teacher personnel decisions over the last few years in ways that haven’t always followed the rules to the letter, particularly regarding teacher transfers. Green said that what the District is seeking in a new pact is “to continue operating the way it’s operating today.”
Jordan reiterated that the union has agreed to site selection, but added, “The workrule issue is a sticking point. The District has decided that they just will place people wherever they want to place them, and no rhyme or reason.”
He mentioned a teacher who lives in the Northeast and must travel to Southwest Philadelphia.
“That’s a huge distance to travel. … Teachers should have a say in exactly where they’re going to work,” Jordan said.
He also said that many schools don’t have committees to make hiring decisions, as promised.
“The District seems to be wanting just the principal to make the determination. When you look at the turnover of principals, people who are going to work with these colleagues should be part of the decision, but they want to take any kind of teacher voice away.
“There are ways to address these issues, but when teachers have no say, it’s a difficult thing for people to accept, including me.”
Green said he was proud that the SRC had managed to stabilize the District’s finances this year, albeit temporarily. It was able to go before City Council and not seek additional funds after several years of begging both the state and city for additional revenue, which in the last several years came mostly in the form of higher sales and cigarette taxes, as well as some one-time gimmicks.
Jordan sees that from a totally different perspective.
“When the District goes before City Council and says they don’t need any money when they have bargaining units without contracts and members haven’t had raises, what message does that send to their employees?”
He concluded: “This has been very, very unlike any other round of negotiations that the union has dealt with over the years.”