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Threat to dock pay raises teachers’ ire and triggers wave of calls, emails and tweets

Contract rally Lea Elementary
Greg Windle

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

The District is still considering whether to dock the pay of teachers who took a personal day on May 1 to participate in marches and advocacy for a fair teachers’ contract and adequate funding for Philadelphia public schools.

The District sent an email to administrators on May 11 that asked for the names of all teachers absent on May 1, and “requesting” principals re-code teachers’ absences from personal days (F-01) to “unauthorized leave without pay” (F-61) for every teacher absent beyond the first 10 percent of the staff — something that is allowed by the PFT contract, but is not always enforced. The Notebook obtained a copy of that email and several others related to the personal time issue.

On May 12 thousands of PFT members and allies began a campaign calling, emailing and tweeting Superintendent William Hite and Mayor Jim Kenney to ask that they reconsider.

The two public officials gave very different responses.

“There has not yet been a decision to dock the pay of those who took personal leave on May 1st,” Hite wrote in an email sent back to inquiring teachers.

“I am glad that Dr. Hite reconsidered the initial order to dock the pay of teachers who participated in the demonstrations on May 1st,” Mayor Kenney said in his own email to teachers, also obtained by The Notebook. “Please know that I hope he ultimately decides not to dock the pay of these teachers. As they used personal time that they earned to take off that day, I don’t believe it is appropriate for them to be penalized for exercising their First Amendment rights.”

Implicit in Hite’s email was the District’s key argument for the punishments: a clause in the teachers’ contract states that no more than 10 percent of teachers at a school can take personal days on the same day.

“We do however plan to support principals who denied leave beforehand because such leave created a hardship at their school,” Hite said in the email to teachers.“Not until we have all of the information do I plan to decide on whether or not we will take action on any employees.”

However, Kelley Collings, a teacher at Feltonville Arts and Sciences and co-founder of the Working Educators caucus that organized many of the events on May 1, asserted that no teachers were denied personal leave beforehand in an email to Hite that received the same response quoted above.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the union intends to file a “class-action grievance” if the District carries out the punishments they are considering.

“It’s an overreach,” Jordan told the Inquirer. “It’s punitive. It’s arbitrary.”

The last official response from the District was sent on May 13, in an email from Chief Talent Officer Louis Bellardine.

“We have decided to hold off taking any action to PFT staff members at this time. We are reviewing the situation and will make decisions consistent with the language in the PFT contract,” Bellardine wrote in the email obtained by the Notebook. “If we decide to take any action, we will do so for the next paycheck. For those that have already coded individuals who requested personal leave above the 10% limit we are manually reversing the code F-61 to a code F-01. Please note if this excessive use of personal days was not disruptive to your school program then the personal leave should be granted.”

However, yesterday Bellardine called various principals “urging them to take punitive measures against staff,” the WE Caucus claimed in a press release sent to media organizations on Thursday..

“There were phones calls that went out yesterday to some buildings that encouraged the principals to use the F-61s in a disciplinary action,” said Collings. “We’re still trying to gather all this information. There was one educator at Feltonville that took off, and she got an F-61. That’s not in line with their 10 percent threshold. This was a district-wide event so there needs to be a centralized response from Hite.”

Collings said that the same situation has occurred in the District before, and the District is not following its own precedent.

In November 2014, thousands of teachers took the day off to volunteer for then-candidate Tom Wolf’s campaign for governor and received no punishment for their use of personal days.

In March, nearly 1,000 female teachers used personal days to take off for what was called “A Day without Women,” where they organized informational pickets outside school buildings to talk to the public about the need for a fair teachers’ contract and more funding for public schools.

After that event, the District issued a statement declaring there would be no consequences: “absences due to participation in protests should be treated like any other request for a day off. The School District of Philadelphia respects the rights of District employees for self-expression.”

Because of the way personal days for community action have been handled in the past, Collings said the superintendent should rethink his position.

“We think that Hite needs to take responsibility for the District’s policy in relation to personal days used on May 1,” Collings said, “and that policy issued by Hite needs to be in accordance with previous precedents.”

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