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Teachers protest lack of contract; more than 1,000 out today

Mifflin teachers
Dale Mezzacappa

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

Teachers led by the activist group Caucus of Working Educators called out of work today in protest of the continued lack of a labor agreement between the School District and their largest union, a stalemate that has persisted for more than four years.

They stood outside their buildings as parents and students came to school this morning, often stopping to reassure parents that their children would be safe although many teachers would not be at work.

The protest began a series of May Day activities in the city meant to draw attention to several justice issues, including educational equity, immigrant rights, workers rights and fair wages, and affordable housing.

The WE caucus is a faction of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which did not sponsor the morning protests, but plans an action at Lea Elementary this afternoon after school that will highlight and thank experienced educators who are choosing to leave their jobs due to the stalemate. Most teachers have not received a raise for five years, not even for acquiring additional degrees that under the expired contract should also trigger a bump in salary.

District communications director Kevin Geary said that 1,000 teachers had called out. On a normal day, about 600 are absent, which would make it the "second or third" highest rate of absence this school year.

Last Friday, a day with nice weather and in the midst of the NFL draft, which caused traffic snarls, 1,200 teachers called out, according to Geary. Historically, teacher absenses peak on Mondays and Fridays. There are more than 8,000 teachers working in District schools.

A District statement left open the possibility of discipline against some of the teachers who didn’t report to work Monday. The expired contract limits absences in any one school due to taking a leave day to 10 percent, and any with unapproved leave are "subject to appropriate discipline, which will depend on each individual’s leave and attendance history," the statement said.

Geary also said that contract talks between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the District have stepped up.

Negotiators "met three or four times last week," he said. "The mayor’s office is involved, there’s a state mediator, and more money is on the table. We’re working to get a contract done." Mayor Kenney said last fall that Deputy Mayor for Labor Richard Lazer was offering his services.

Outside the Mifflin School in East Falls this morning, five teachers had gathered by 7:45 a.m. with signs and buttons outside the school’s entrance on Conrad Street. School at Mifflin doesn’t start until 8:30 a.m.

Pamela Roy of the WE caucus said that all but three of the 25 teachers at the school were planning not to come to work and instead participate in the protests. The teachers staying also support the action, but agreed to work for student safety reasons, she said.

Geary said that the District had been "alerted to this for a while," and had prepared. In addition to working with the company that provides the District’s substitutes, some staffers from the central office will spend the day in schools, he said.

When Shyriah Johnson pulled up to Mifflin to drop off her daughter Samai, Roy ran up to her car to talk explain what was happening. Johnson said she wasn’t worried.

"The teachers should get what they deserve," she said. "They work hard."

Second-grade teacher Nate Monahan spoke with Dinisha Graham when she dropped off her daughter Dinae Pierce.

"They should be accommodated," Graham said of the teachers. Monahan "should be paid for the job he does. He goes above and beyond."

The activist teachers have been emphasizing that "our working conditions are student learning conditions" and have long been resisting the District’s austerity regimen imposed after severe state and federal budget cuts in 2011. Schools lost counselors and nurses, class sizes grew, and materials have been scarce. Many teachers spend their own money on supplies.

In addition, the District’s maintenance department can’t keep up with the needs of its aging buildings– Mifflin dates back to 1935 — sometimes resulting in unhealthy conditions. Mifflin has had issues with mold and peeling paint, which can exacerbate asthma, prevalent among children in some city neighborhoods.

"Our students deserve the very best learning conditions and the very best teachers," said Roy, who teaches math and science to fifth and sixth graders. "Without a contract, they can’t have that."

Teacher recruitment becomes harder under the circumstances and many teachers are leaving, although the District says that turnover rates are not higher than usual.

Monahan, who lives in East Falls, left a banking career for teaching. He said despite the situation, he doesn’t regret it. He’s been teaching for seven years.

"I come from a family of educators," he said. "I wanted to be more of a contributor to the community. I live in East Falls and my goal was to get to Mifflin as a teacher. This is just one aspect of the whole experience."

Still, with a 5-month-old, he is getting worried about stability and planning for his son’s future not having had a raise for five years.

Other teachers who showed up early at Mifflin included Colleen Yarnall, a 26-year District veteran, and Kevin Viola, who is in his first year in the District.

"We need better class size, more technology, water fountains, more funding for schools," Viola said.

The contract impasse is the longest since the PFT got bargaining rights in 1965, although the 1970’s saw some marathon teacher strikes. With the state takeover of the District in 2001, Philadelphia teachers were prohibited from striking.

The teachers were asked whether they entirely blame the School Reform Commission, as opposed to union leadership, for the impasse. The WE caucus put up a slate of candidates against the current leadership last year, but lost.

"Absolutely there are two parties in this," said Roy. "I think we all want the same thing, which is what’s best for kids."

The worst culprits are those who have money who are "starving our school district of funds," she said. The SRC, like the Board of Education before it, cannot raise revenue and must rely on the state and the city for funding.

If saving money is the goal, "getting rid of highly qualified experienced teachers is a great way to do that," she said. "Educators are the stability of any school."

Teachers from Mifflin and elsewhere proceeded to a larger protest outside School District headquarters at 440 North Broad Street later in the morning.

District spokesman Lee Whack also issued a statement downplaying both the amount of teacher turnover and the difficulty in recruiting new teachers.

The District statement says its "continued progress is due in large part to our talented and dedicated teachers as we work to create great schools close to where children live. The School District of Philadelphia has a 90 percent teacher retention rate year over year and our teachers are choosing to stay and teach in Philadelphia. This year we continue to expand our teacher workforce especially in the lower grades and in early literacy development, and we continue to invest more in teacher training and development."

It continues: "As Superintendent Hite has said repeatedly, getting a fair contract for Philadelphia teachers is a top priority. We remain committed to this, which is why we remain at the table, in negotiations with the PFT."

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