1,000 Philly teachers call out to protest lack of contract

Hundreds of Philadelphia teachers protest four years without a contract.

About 1,000 Philadelphia School District teachers did not report for work Monday, many taking personal time to highlight what they say are unfair working conditions and a lack of a contract.

The majority of teachers at a number of schools, including Central, Franklin Learning Center, and the U School, called out.

Hundreds of frustrated educators shut down part of North Broad Street for a time Monday morning, waving signs and chanting on a march to City Hall. 

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which did not sponsor or sanction the action, held another rally later Monday. The union has not had a contract for nearly four years; teachers have gone without a raise for nearly five.

The coordinated teacher absence was organized by the Caucus of Working Educators, a coalition within the union.

Alicia Benjamin, a kindergarten teacher at Mifflin Elementary, is frozen at a beginning teachers' salary despite having several years of experience.

"I've started graduate school, and it's become increasingly difficult to pay for classes," Benjamin said.

She is not a member of the Working Educators group, but said she felt compelled to participate. She hoisted a sign and marched down Broad Street to City Hall after a rally outside School District headquarters.

"I'm here for my students, too," Benjamin said. "Our teaching conditions are their learning conditions."

Bill Steinke, a 23-year veteran, teaches at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences. He called out to make a point, he said.

His daughter followed him into a career teaching in Philadelphia, and she wonders whether she can stay in the district, he said.

"Without a contract, there's no hope for a decent standard of living," said Steinke.

Kristin Jones, who teaches health and physical education at Carver High School of Engineering and Science, marched down Broad Street with her two children in tow. Bringing son Leo, 3, and daughter Lincoln, 3 months, was important, she said.

"There are days when I walk into my classroom and I don't have enough chairs or books," said Jones, who has nine years of experience teaching but who is paid as a fourth-year teacher. 

Jones is on maternity leave, so she did not have to take a day off. Still, she said, the gesture was important.

"I know there are parents who will be upset that their kids are essentially losing out on a day of education, but we had to do this," said Jones.

Once wholly devoted to teaching in Philadelphia, she has feelers out to suburban districts, Jones said. 

For Keziah Ridgeway, a teacher at Northeast High School, calling out was a necessity, she said. 

"We have to speak out against the injustices of the world," said Ridgeway, a second-year history teacher. "Everybody walks on teachers. And education got us all here."

The full day of action culminated in the union rally in West Philadelphia, where teachers saying they were leaving the system because of a lack of contract spoke.

Lee Whack, a School District spokesman, said that some schools felt the strain of a majority of educators calling out. But, he said, education was not disrupted, as the district was able to work with its substitute-teaching provider to fill most vacancies.

The PFT and School District have planned contract negotiating sessions all week. The school system projects a deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars in the next few years.

"Our teachers deserve a raise, and we're trying to get it for them," Whack said. "Everyone knows our financial realities, and we need to keep those in mind."