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Wait for a teachers’ contract drags on

The new year and new SRC members don’t bring much hope for a quick resolution.

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

Another new year has started without a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract.

In the historically long deadlock, PFT members have not received raises since 2013, and some have seen no compensation increases since 2012.

For the first time, appointees of Gov. Wolf and Mayor Kenney, who are strong PFT allies, will form a majority on the School Reform Commission.

But will that equate to quick action? Don’t count on it.

Interviews with District Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson, PFT president Jerry Jordan, and others leave the impression that the gulf is as wide as ever. In addition to disputes over raises and benefits, the sides are sparring over work rules, such as teacher preparation time and the process for assigning teachers to schools.

During the long stalemate, teachers have received no raises for accruing experience, nor increments for furthering their education. Most heavily affected are those with less than 10 years of experience who have not reached the top of the pay scale and are still earning advanced degrees.

The District is not expecting a windfall from either the state or the city to pay for a generous contract.

Pennsylvania is facing a $3 billion deficit. Gov. Wolf proposed a $100 million boost to basic education funding in his budget, but that amount may not survive the Republican-controlled legislature. If it does, Philadelphia would likely get around $23 million, according to the District Communications Office.

City Council is concerned that the District will sign a contract and then expect the city to pay for it. The SRC has no taxing power of its own.

“We’ve been told by everybody – there is no more money for teacher contracts,” said one person involved in the negotiations.

The District is still dealing with draconian education cuts that took place in 2011 during the Corbett administration and have never been made up.

“Five years later, in absolute state dollars, we are still below where we were then,” said Monson.

[See How the contract stalemate could imperil the Andrew Jackson rock band]

Although the District has a small fund balance this year – due in part to savings realized by an inability to fill all its teaching jobs and to meet substitute needs in 2015-16 – Monson forecasts a half-billion dollar shortfall in five years without significant new investment.

In November, the District made an offer that would move teachers one step ahead this year for experience and continue step increases in subsequent years. But it would not restore teachers to the step they should be on.

It would give no increases for obtaining additional degrees, but would provide bonuses to teachers who teach in hard-to-staff schools and in shortage areas, such as special education and math.

People already at the top of the pay scale would get a 2.5 percent increase. And all teachers would contribute toward health coverage; now, most don’t.

In total, the offer would result in additional net outlay to PFT members of $107 million over five years, Monson said. There is also potential federal grant funding that would pay for some incentive bonuses, increasing that amount to $153 million.

Monson said that the latest offer by the union would cost an unaffordable half-billion dollars over five years.

Although Jordan doesn’t dispute that money is tight, he said that it is only fair that teachers be compensated based on their actual experience and education level – which is what all the surrounding districts do.

“They’re creating a problem; people who have been investing in their education will leave and go to another district,” Jordan said.

Monson points out that other District unions took pay cuts at the height of the crisis, while the PFT held out, choosing to absorb layoffs instead.

The two sides also fundamentally disagree on the practice of using bonuses as incentives. The District considers them to be a tool of good management, and Jordan opposes such differentiation among teachers.

“No matter what school you work in, it’s a challenging job,” he said. “I believe additional compensation should be given to everybody.”

Then there are the work rules, which echo disputes of contract negotiations past. For instance, the District wants principals to be able to control teacher prep time – the daily period when they do paperwork and prepare for classes – and the union is adamantly opposed.

Teacher assignment is another area of longstanding conflict. Once dependent almost entirely on teacher choice based on seniority, teacher placement is mostly done now through site selection, in which teachers must apply for jobs and be interviewed at individual schools.

Although site selection is not going away, the union is trying to hang on to some practices that still allow teachers to make choices about where they teach, especially around the “leveling” period in October. That’s when the District matches the size and composition of the teaching staff in each school to the actual, rather than projected, enrollment.

Under the old contract, if a position in a school is eliminated, the least senior teacher must transfer. If one is added, the most senior qualified teacher gets to claim it.

But for the last three years, principals have been able to cite a “compelling reason” to eliminate a more senior teacher and keep a newer one.

Jordan says the process is arbitrary, dependent on principals’ “whims.” Transfers “have to be based on something concrete,” he said.

Both sides would not give details about how often the two sides are meeting or how much urgency the contract negotiations now have. The longer the deadlock goes on, the more money the members potentially lose.

Asked what it might take for a breakthrough, Jordan said: “Getting a fair contract offer.”

But, according to Monson, “We have to reach a balance. Having unhappy teachers is not healthy. But if the system is not fiscally healthy, that is not good for kids either.”