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In my article "Teacher Activism," I explained the background of the takeover of the School District of Philadelphia by the state of Pennsylvania. The District is still under the control of the School Reform Commission (SRC) which is not elected nor does it have any taxing power. Until 2013 the SRC managed to negotiate contracts with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). For some reason although the teachers are still working under the last contract the SRC has not been willing to negotiate fairly with the PFT. Suddenly, On October 6, 2014, the SRC cancelled the contract under which the teachers had been working. The reason given by the SRC was that the union had not been agreeable to contributing money to their medical plans and that was needed to balance this year’s budget. What wasn’t mentioned by the SRC is that cancellation of the contract also means that school staff has no recourse when unfair practices are implemented by a school administrator. Many people outside of the District suggested that teachers go on strike because of this decision. What they don’t know is that the law that created the takeover of the district also took away the right of Philadelphia teachers to strike. If they do strike they can have their licenses revoked, thus ending their professional careers.
This is the first time that such a drastic move has been taken by the SRC. It is however the latest assault on the working conditions of the teachers and support staff. The union has dealt with the layoff of 5,000 staff members during the last few years. Many of those laid off have been rehired. Some have gone through the experience more than once. The contract was violated when counselors were laid off. The legislature allowed the PA School Code to be ignored so that nurses could be let go. Most schools are lucky if they have a nurse one day a week. Seniority has been suspended for teaching positions and rehires. The last raise teachers received was in 2012 at the end of the last written contract. Although that contract was extended for another year it did not include any raises. All step increases have been cancelled as well as increases for earning higher degrees. The SRC stated that they wanted union members to contribute to their health insurance. What they have done instead is to offer inferior plans to take effect in December while still requiring a contribution by teachers based on their salary.
As a retired Philadelphia teacher I have to ask: how has the cancellation of the contract affected students? Parents know that the working conditions in every PFT contract includes class size limits, preparation time to get supplies ready for the next class and to call parents if necessary. The contracts used to include the counselor to student ratio in a school as well as the allocation of nursing services. These are all off the table now.
Here are some of the negative effects that have already been reported:
* Maximum class size is now permitted to be above 33. Two high schools, Northeast High School (home to 3500 students) reported a science class size of 62 and Central High School (a special admission school with high academic standing) had an English class with 50 students just a month ago.
* Many schools still do not have full time counselors or nurses.
* Books and supplies are lacking.
* Many schools have split grade classes.
* Teachers have been purchasing general supplies like pencils and paper.
The School Reform Commission states that they needed to take the step of canceling the contract to find money that could be returned to the schools. The savings are to be turned over to the principal in each school to be allocated as he/she sees fit. Since the savings will accrue monthly, the money returned to each school will not amount to enough to hire a counselor for example. So how are the students benefiting from the money that is supposed to be saved?
Stay tuned for updates as this situation heads to state court because even the SRC has admitted that they don’t know if what they have done is legal. The union is also seeking redress in state court because of the change in health insurance plans.
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