PHILADELPHIA – Things are mess right now in the Philadelphia school district, due to an astronomical budget deficit, mass employee layoffs and contentious contract negotiations with the local teachers union.
In case that’s not enough to keep Philly school leaders busy, it appears they’ll soon have a court case on their hands, courtesy of that local teachers union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
On Monday, PFT President Jerry Jordan announced his union will take legal action against the Philadelphia school board – known as the School Reform Commission (SRC) – over its recent decision to set aside seniority work rules and automatic pay raises that are based on a teacher’s length of service and level of college education, according to Philly.com.
SRC members – who manage the district on behalf of the state, which took control of Philly schools more than a decade ago – unanimously voted last week to temporarily suspend those practices while the district attempts to ready itself for the upcoming school year.
Earlier this summer, the SRC laid off some 4,000 district employees due to its monumental budget crisis. School principals lost many of their teachers and most of their front office personnel. The layoffs were so severe that Superintendent William Hite Jr. said he couldn’t guarantee the students’ safety, and planned to delay the start of school until more staff could be added.
The city of Philadelphia responded to Hite’s warning by securing a $50 million loan on behalf of the district that that will allow the recall of about 1,000 of those employees.
But instead of simply recalling the 1,000 most senior employees on the layoff list, Hite said he needed the flexibility to select individuals whose skills and experiences are essential to getting each building up and running for when students return in just a few weeks, reports CBS Philly.
That’s why the SRC voted to set aside union rules that would require the district to rehire employees based on their level of seniority, instead of their level of skill and specialization.
The district may also have payroll concerns in mind. Without the seniority rule, they are free to recall teachers who make less money than others, which might be helpful in the face of the financial crisis. In the traditional seniority system, the best teachers are not always the highest paid teachers.
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PFT leaders say the district is violating the terms of the union’s contract which is still in effect through Aug. 31.
SRC members believe they have the authority to bypass the work rules during this latest budget crisis.
Jordan, the PFT president, told members the union will file a grievance against the district, which means the matter will have to be decided by a judge.
Unfortunately, Jordan didn’t stop there.
“He also urged (union) members to refrain from doing extra work that normally would have been performed by union members on the layoff list,” reports Philly.com.
PFT leaders also promised to ratchet up their media campaign against district leaders, which will include a march on district headquarters later this week, according to Philly.com.
As Edweek.org reports, the Philadelphia school district is facing an existential crisis due to declining enrollment, ever-rising pension costs and cuts in state aid.
Those are all big problems, but – as this latest episode illustrates – the single biggest threat facing the financial and academic future of Philly schools remains the teachers union. The union’s last contract was far too expensive, union leaders say they won’t make any concessions in current contract negotiations, and now the union is ready to sue the school over seniority and raises.
Until district and state officials address their union problem head on, Philly schools will continue to be – as Salon.com put it – “the public school system from hell.”