By Steve Gunn and Victor Skinner

PHILADELPHIA – Several parents and school employees upset about the impending layoff of lunchtime aides in the Philadelphia school district are staging a hunger strike, hoping to pressure officials into keeping the employees on the payroll next year.

They may lose a lot of weight without the cooperation of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the district’s teachers union, which thus far is refusing to make any financial concessions to help the district avoid massive layoffs.

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Philadelphia school officials plan to lay off approximately 3,800 workers – including teachers, assistant principals, lunch aides, counselors and secretaries – to reduce a massive $304 million deficit.

Some of those jobs may be spared, including some lunchtime aide positions, if the district can secure a combined $180 million in extra aid from the city and state and $130 million in concessions from the district’s teachers union, the Associated Press reports.

City and state officials show signs of responding to the emergency call.

The Philadelphia City Council recently agreed to pitch in $75 million with a $2 per pack cigarette tax and “more aggressive property tax collections,” according to media reports.

There is also talk of redirecting 1 percent of the city income tax to the school district.

Gov. Tom Corbett recently discussed the possibility of state assistance, vaguely referring to “student-centered contributions from the state, the city, the school district and the union,” according to

But Corbett seems particularly interested in seeing the union step up to the plate.

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“Among the proposed solutions, Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite is asking employees for wage and benefit changes, including sharing a portion of their health care premiums and for the ability to staff schools around the needs of students,” Corbett said.

“Such changes will help stem the financial drain on the school district’s budget so that resources may be directed back into the classroom for high-quality teaching and improved learning.”

Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller reiterated that the union’s cooperation may be key to any bailout package.

“Everyone has agreed that it will take (union) concessions along with a combination of new ideas and reforms to the current system in order to reset the district for the future,” Eller wrote in an email, according to the AP.

Unfortunately the financial circle remains incomplete. As the Associated Press put it, “Teachers union president Jerry Jordan … said his members have already sacrificed enough.”

In other words, don’t count on the teachers.

Union contract a money burner

Why is everyone so interested in union cooperation?  Because labor costs have spiraled out of control in the district over the past few years, due largely to extremely expensive provisions in the PFT’s last collective bargaining agreement.

That agreement expires Aug. 31 and new labor negotiations are underway.

The school district reportedly wants the union to agree to freeze salaries through 2017, increase the length of the work day and have employees pay a greater share of their health insurance costs, according to the Associated Press.

The union’s response?

Instead of offering to give back to the district, PFT leaders are demanding that the district hire a bunch of new employees at a cost of about $175 million.

They obviously don’t get it, or they just don’t care.

Based on numbers we’ve seen in the past, there is plenty the union could sacrifice to help the common cause.

Last year EAGnews released a report on the costs of various provisions in the teachers union contract from the 2010-11 school year. Here are a few of the more telling dollar figures, which were provided by the district:

A total of $14.4 million was spent on a poorly timed cost-of-living increase for all teachers and PFT members.

Another $2.6 million was spent on a legal services fund to cover the costs of employees’ personal legal expenses. That’s right, their personal legal expenses, like divorce, bankruptcy, criminal defense, etc.

The district spent $165 million on employee health insurance, while employees only paid a combined $270,550, or less than one percent.  Another $66 million was spent on a “health and welfare fund” to cover dental, vision and prescription drugs for employees.

The district also spent $15.3 million on reimbursement for unused sick or personal days, $7.1 million for a “wage continuation plan,” $579,457 for tuition reimbursement for teachers who take college classes, and $23 million in salaries for extracurricular activity supervision.

The good news is that the teachers union contract expires in August, meaning there will be window of opportunity for the school reform commission to negotiate many expensive provisions out of the next pact.

Postponing or eliminating many of those types of costs, which are unjustifiable during the current financial crisis, would go a long way toward creating a more financially stable future for Philadelphia schools.

Inquirer adds its two cents worth

Last week the Philadelphia Inquirer checked into the debate, scolding the teachers union for suggesting that no concessions are in order.

“Philadelphia’s teachers’ union has been a diligent participant in efforts to increase state and local funding to the city’s financially struggling public schools, but it has yet to say what it will do to help,” the newspaper wrote.

“That is not only disappointing, but it sends the wrong message to legislators from other parts of the state who think of Philadelphia as a perpetual beggar.

“The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is helping to feed that attitude by not agreeing to any of the pay and benefits concessions the School District is asking for to save money. Nor is it offering its own concessions. Given that, why should anyone believe the teachers are taking a situation they claim is urgent seriously?

“PFT President Jerry Jordan, in a meeting with the Inquirer Editorial Board last week, said his members are unwilling to accept any pay or benefits cuts in a new contract. Their current pact expires Aug. 31. Jordan understandably doesn’t want to negotiate in public. But he could provide some indication that compromise is possible.

“He’s not wrong to point out the sacrifices teachers make daily, often spending their own money on supplies. In this situation, however, the PFT shouldn’t be asking for more money. Yet that is exactly what its contract proposal does. It’s a $175 million wish list that asks for smaller class sizes and more librarians, nurses, and counselors.

“Apparently, the district’s sending pink slips to nearly 3,800 employees didn’t bother Jordan at all. Otherwise, he would be making some type of offer to prevent them from being laid off. He would be showing the leadership needed to persuade the rank and file to accept compromise.

“Council may not agree to anything but the cigarette-tax hike, and the PFT isn’t making any concessions. Is this the unified front that is supposed to bail out the schools?”