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Teachers to vote tonight on contract proposal

Contract rally Lea Elementary
Greg Windle

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

After four years of enduring frozen salaries during the longest stalemate ever between the Philadelphia School District and its biggest union, city teachers are preparing to vote on a new three-year contract proposal Monday night.

The tentative agreement with the 11,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has a price tag of $395 million, far higher than an offer that became public last October, which was closer to $150 million.

Under the deal, all teachers will see their compensation go up, some in the form of one-time bonuses, some through raises in base pay, and some through moving to a higher “step” based on having accrued additional experience and education during the four years of the stalemate.

They will also, for the first time, pay toward their health insurance premiums – starting at 1.25 percent of base salaries, and rising to 1.5 percent after two years. There are other changes designed to save money, including fewer payments into the union’s Health and Welfare Fund, which offers services including prescriptions and vision, and a provision scaling back wage protection in cases of long-term disability.

The pact includes other important changes. The union agreed to go to full “site selection,” in which principals and school teams choose new teachers to fill vacancies instead of relying primarily on seniority with teachers largely choosing where they work. Seniority will figure in only for positions that are not filled through that process, and in the cases of rehiring after layoffs.

The battle over the role of seniority in teacher placement is longstanding. Although some site selection has been in effect since the 1990s, this is a huge change from the days when seniority reigned, teachers chose where they worked, and principals had little or no say in who staffed their buildings. That made it hard to put together teams pulling in the same direction educationally.

The PFT held firm, however, against giving bonuses for teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools and subjects, which the District sought as a tool to help ease persistent vacancies in critical areas.

“The PFT contract is a strong contract for teachers and on the overall balance of it,” said Councilwoman Helen Gym, a strong PFT ally who was instrumental in closing the deal. “Necessarily, compromises were made that were within the realm of reasonability to get a contract done and get things moving.

“I hope teachers review it with the utmost seriousness. All of us who worked hard to make sure it got done wanted to make sure we got something that showed a clear investment in Philadelphia schools, teachers, and staff.”

The activist group Caucus of Working Educators held meetings over the weekend to analyze the contract and is urging teachers to meet in their schools today during free time.

After studying it, the WE caucus decided not to make a recommendation for or against, but rather to “encourage everyone to make an informed vote.”

“There are still many unanswered questions that we hope to have answered” at the general membership meeting, according to a statement from the caucus.

These questions include whether the cutbacks in payments to the Health and Welfare Fund will “destabilize” it and whether language will result in more frequent observation of teachers.

WE Caucus had sought a reduction in maximum class size, now 30 from K-3 and 33 from grades 4 to 12. That was not included. The proposal does include a requirement that staff be trained in restorative practices rather than punitive measures for school discipline.

Under the contract, a working group will be formed to look at the length of the school day and make recommendations that would take effect in 2019. The District had sought to lengthen the school day; Philadelphia’s official teacher workday is among the shortest in the state, although many teachers put in longer hours at their own expense, especially since the virtual elimination of money for extra-curricular activities.

The WE Caucus also calculated how teachers at various levels of experience and education levels would fare under the pact, including how much members will still be short out-of-pocket due to the frozen salaries of the past four years.

The people who have lost the most are those with about five to eight years of experience — those who remained stuck at first- or second-year salaries. They get the biggest bonuses, but that money does not get figured into their base pay. The newest teachers and those people who had already reached the top level of the salary scale lose less comparatively. Those at the top step get bonuses based on 3 percent of their base salary.

“There are people with five years of services still stuck on step one in terms of pay,” said Larissa Pahamov, a WE Caucus member who teaches at Science Leadership Academy who was speaking as an individual. With nine years of experience, she said, “I’m not the worst off. I think there are two ways to look at it: It’s important to consider what salary and benefits were promised me for the contract I signed nine years ago, but I recognize in the current political environment that contract is not being honored.”

According to the WE calculations, a person with nine years of experience and a master’s degree who stays until 2020 will have lost about $47,000 in overall compensation over those eight years, compared to the terms of the last contract and figuring in the new health insurance premiums.

The District is projecting a $700 million budget shortfall in the next five years and recovering from steep cuts starting in 2012 when former Gov. Tom Corbett and the legislature cut $1 billion in state and federal aid to school districts, $250 million of which affected Philadelphia. Although state aid has increased significantly since then, the District is still not back where it was before 2012.

The beginning of the impasse with the PFT coincided with those deep cuts. The District has been running small fund balances for two years, but that is partly due to the lack of teacher raises and not filling all vacancies in some areas.

That fiscal stability, however, helped the negotiations move to their conclusion.

Current budget projections do not outline how the District will pay for the pact, but officials are counting on a few things coming together over the next three years. One is a tweak in how the District’s poverty level is calculated for the purposes of determining the amount of its state subsidy. When the city overhauled its property tax system so assessments would more accurately reflect actual values, the revaluations made the city seem less poor than it actually is for purposes of the education funding formula.

But there is also hope that the city will take action. One source said that Mayor Kenney helped bring the deal to fruition by promising leadership to increase the city’s contribution, perhaps through the property tax, which is the largest and most reliable recurring source of city funds for the District. In the recent past, the city has funneled additional revenue to the District largely through one-time payments and "sin" taxes — on liquor by the drink and cigarettes, most prominently.

"There are no more sins to tax," joked one District source.

But Council has been unwilling to look at a property tax hike. Although the District relies much more heavily on that tax than the city for its local revenue, Council members are the ones who take the heat for any increases. The School Reform Commission has no taxing power of its own and must rely on the city and state for the bulk of its funds.

"There was some indication from Mayor Kenney about his willingness to find the money. It may not be precise as to what it looks like," the source said. "But this is important to him. He’s committed to making it possible for the District to fund it. If there’s a willingness on the mayor’s part to make it happen, then you can stretch."

Another source echoed that assessment of the mayor’s role.

"Credit the mayor for being an honest broker," this source said. "Previous mayors would walk in the door, say, ‘You’re giving the union this, you’re done.’ Or they’d say to the union, ‘Accept this and move on.’ The mayor and his team didn’t do that. They were honest brokers pushing and listening to both sides."

In an email, Kenney spokesman Lauren Hitt said:

"We’ve long known the district is facing a major fiscal issue, and the anticipated cost of a teachers contract was always part of that consideration, especially given that the teachers rejected the $150 million offer last Fall. As we’ve said previously, we are working with our various funding partners on how to address that. It’s important to remember that having a school system that attracts and retains quality teachers is essential to the success and stability of the District.

"As we’ve seen over the last few years, while the District can technically function without a contract, it will not produce a strong workforce nor will it attract families or business to our city. The tentative deal is the fairest possible deal for students, teachers and Philadelphians."

Another factor in reaching a deal was the new faces on the School Reform Commission and in District leadership. SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson, installed last fall, was "terrific, measured, with the right affect," determined to get it done, the District source said. Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson brought fresh perspectives and had the benefit of not having gone through the worst of the fiscal crisis as most of the negotiators had.

"There was a confluence of people who recognized that something needed to get done," Monson said. "There were some additional resources on the table [in the form of a boost in commercial real estate collections due to the Actual Value Initiative that promised to bring in $65 million more a year for the District], and fresh insights and approaches which allowed for this."

Gym did not discount the city’s role in meeting the contract’s costs, but reiterated that the state has the ultimate responsibility for providing adequate and equitable education to all students. Although Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, has been sympathetic to Philadelphia’s needs and substantially increased education aid since taking office, the Republican legislature’s priority for Philadelphia has been to expand charter schools, not funnel more money to unionized District teachers.

Among the states, Pennsylvania has the widest gap in spending between rich and poor districts and one of the lowest state shares, compared to the local contribution. Most states contribute closer to half of the total education pot; in Pennsylvania, it is just over a third.

Another hope is that a fair funding lawsuit, which the state Supreme Court is still deciding whether it will hear, will succeed in forcing the state to invest more in education across Pennsylvania.

“The failure of the state to meet fair and equitable funding is the big hurdle,” said Gym. “Clearly the city has delivered, the teachers have sacrificed, and the District has done about as much as it can. The responsibility does lie with the state to come up with appropriate funding not only for Philadelphia, but for districts all over the Commonwealth. I think this contract shows the state really does have to step up.”

The ratification meeting is at the Liacouras Center at Temple University at 6 p.m., with doors opening at 4 p.m. The SRC is scheduled to meet Tuesday at 2 to take its vote.

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