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Teachers stream into Liacouras Center for contract vote

Chris Agerakis
Greg Windle

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

Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers started filling up the Liacouras Center before 4 p.m. today, and hundreds had already voted before the membership meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. to explain the contract provisions.

Chris Argerakis was one of them.

The music teacher who started the band called Home at Jackson Elementary School said that he voted yes. Like several other teachers who were willing to discuss how they felt – and not many were – he said that although the pact wasn’t everything he had hoped for, it was “progress.”

Due to the long contract stalemate, PFT members received no raises for the last four years. Argerakis has said that he wasn’t sure he could continue working at the District without a raise, as much as he wanted to stay.

“For a lot of us at Jackson, September was the deadline for something to happen,” he said. At that point, “I’d be a 10-year teacher at a five-year salary.”

The reason he voted early and left is that he had to go to his second job. And as the band director, during the period of frozen wages, he has taken the students on gigs and conducted rehearsals mostly on his own time.

“I do feel relieved. I tried to remain optimistic throughout all of this,” Argerakis said. When he took the job in the District, he said, “I remember looking at the contract and thinking that by my seventh or eighth year, I’d be making a comfortable living. Now, it will just take a little longer to get there. The contract is not ideal, but when you think about it, it’s fair.”

He said that paying something for health care premiums makes sense. Under the proposal, teachers’ zero contributions to medical insurance would end and they would pay 1.25 percent of their salary, which would go up to 1.5 percent in two years.

“I realize that in this day and age, we’ve had it made, and it is still not bad,” Argerakis said.

He is disappointed that the contract doesn’t “make me whole” for the money lost because he got no increases as he accrued experience. But he will make back some of it through one-time bonuses and a cost-of-living increase. And he is gratified that he will get credit for his continuing education and for the 30 credits he earned beyond his master’s degree.

“And I would eventually get up to my final step (step 11) by 2020. So, there is a positive side to it,” he said.

As teachers waited in long lines to register for the voting, their faces showed a range of emotions from joyful smiles to knitted brows.

Most were tight-lipped about how they voted and why.

Cathy Magee, a teacher at Kirkbride Elementary, said she wasn’t pleased with the first offer made by the District, but she voted in favor of this one because it removed her biggest problems with the last proposal: merit pay and changes to the health-care plan. Like Argerakis, she could live with the changes in this plan. In addition to paying into premiums, spouses eligible for coverage through their employer who chose to be covered under the PFT plan will pay a surcharge of $50 a month until September 2019, when it goes to $75.

“It’s about time,” Magee said, lamenting the years spent without a contract.

Another teacher, who would not give her name, said she voted yes because she didn’t trust how things would work out if negotiations went into another year.

“I don’t want things to get any worse,” she said.

Jessica Tulli, a teacher at Meredith Elementary with nine years of experience, said she was “ready to move forward. I think it is as good a contract as we’re going to get.”

Jade McCray, a teacher at Juniata Park Academy who voted in favor of the contract, said she was primarily motivated by her financial needs — having joined the District the same year of the hiring freeze, she hasn’t ever gotten a raise and is still paid as a first-year teacher.

“I have a child,” she said. “I voted yes but it was a yes out of necessity,” adding like the others that she thinks the contract is not ideal but far more generous than the last offer.

Argerakis brought up another fear – that there might be layoffs because the District won’t get the money from the city and state it needs to fully fund the $395 million package, which was a huge increase over a $150 million offer that became public last fall and was rejected by the PFT leadership as insufficient.

Argerakis is afraid for arts programs in particular.

“I have every intention to stay in the District and keep doing the work I have been doing,” Argerakis said. “My fear is that jobs may be in jeopardy and arts programs may be in jeopardy; these are the terms, we don’t have the money. I’m looking at the worst-case scenario.”

Mayor Kenney has said that he will work with “funding partners,” including City Council and Harrisburg, to fund the contract, saying 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.”

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