C'mon teachers. There's some room to give

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Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers protest budget cuts earlier this month.

SOME PEOPLE might stop speaking to me after this column appears.

One of them may be my sister.

My sister is a high-school teacher in another state, who, in early August, went to her classroom to start setting it up for the next school year, spending some of the countless extra hours she devotes to her job not only in the summer but throughout the school year.

She is not unlike many teachers here and around the country who devote extra time as well as their own money for school supplies. Her job, in an inner-city school, is grueling and difficult, like it is for the 8,079 teachers who serve in the Philadelphia School District. I have enormous respect for her, and for them.

The Philadelphia teacher contracts are due to expire tomorrow. The district wants at least $100 million in concessions to fill a $304 million gap. On Wednesday, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan announced the teachers were willing to forgo raises and contribute something to their health benefits. No details were given.

Among the narratives coming from the PFT or its members throughout negotiations is that the district is a) trying to break the unions, b) trying to fix the budget crisis on the backs of the teachers, c) that teachers have sacrificed enough already, or d) they are already underpaid.

I believe that these narratives are at best exaggerations and require a little perspective.

* Teacher pay: Current salaries for teachers range from $46,000 for a starting teacher to $83,900. The district is asking for pay cuts of 5 or 10 percent; 13 percent for teachers making $55,000. PFT members complain they make less than their suburban counterparts, and are drawing the line at taking a pay cut. But how do they do compared to other workers in the private sector?

The current PFT contract calls for 7.06 hours a day. The district wants an eight-hour day. (The average for school teachers in the state is 7 1/2 hours.)

I know, I know, many city teachers put in more than seven hours a day . . . the best ones, many more than seven. But contractually, they don't have to.

The 180-day school year means teachers' total contracted work life is 1,270 hours a year.

Compare that to private-sector jobs, where the work year is 260 days. Subtracting 23 days for vacation, personal and sick days and holidays brings the total work year to 237 days, which, under a standard eight-hour day, equals 1,896 hours a year. That's 626 hours more than a teacher, or the equivalent of 78 more eight-hour days a year.

Based on these calculations, a Philadelphia teacher is obligated to work 67 percent of the time a private-sector worker puts in. Could that be a factor in how many extra hours teachers say they must devote to the job?

* Health coverage: Philadelphia teachers contribute nothing to their health-care costs, for which the district paid $133 million in 2012. (New teachers pay a small amount in the first three years, then nothing.) In addition, the district pays into a PFT health and welfare fund that allows the union to cover other things, like prescriptions, optical and dental. The healthy balance of the fund allowed the PFT to give $30 million to the district as a gift last year, leaving $28 million remaining that the district is responsible for. Even after the gift, the fund still has a balance of $24 million.

Teachers who opt-out of health coverage get compensated at the rate of 25 percent of the district's cost of coverage.

Private-sector workers on average pay $4,316 annually toward the cost of their coverage (for employer-sponsored family health coverage), according to the latest report from the National Council of State Legislators.

* Other benefits: The district pays into a legal fund to be used by PFT members. In 2010-11, the total was $2.3 million. The union has custody of this fund.

The district also pays the PFT $400,000 a year for tuition reimbursement.

It paid teachers $23 million for extracurricular pay, $20 million for substitute teachers and $5 million for "wage continuation," giving teachers short-term disability pay when their sick and personal time runs out.

Teachers are allowed to accrue unused sick, personal and vacation days and "cash out" when they leave the district. That typically costs the district $15.3 million a year, though last year, it cost $36 million.

* Pensions: Teachers contribute 7.4 percent of their pay to their pension plans. The state and the district kick in 8.7 percent. Pension benefits depend on many factors, but a teacher retiring after 30 years gets a pension roughly 78 percent of preretirement income.

In the private sector, few professionals in the 21st century know what a pension is.

I realize that comparing teaching with private sector work is on some levels an apples-to-oranges comparison. It leaves out many intangibles, such as difficulty of the work, especially in a poor urban district like ours. But the dollars are real, and provided by the public, which means they should be open to scrutiny and question.

The dollars are also huge: The total budget for teachers is roughly $1.2 billion - half of this year's entire school budget. And that figure will keep growing, consuming more and more of the budget.

As currently contracted, our teachers don't have a terrible deal. Throw in the legal fund, the free health coverage and other perks, and I'd guess many private-sector workers might be envious - at least those who don't have a clue how hard teaching can be.

I believe teachers deserve this kind of deal. In fact, I think we all do.

But as the district looks under the cushions for any loose change that might help close their funding gap, I don't think it's unfair to expect the PFT to check its own cushions - especially some of the fatter ones.

 

 


Email: sheas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5886

Columns: philly.com/SandraShea