Contractless for four years, Philadelphia teachers plan action Monday

Academy at Palumbo teachers Meghan Donnelly and Klint Kanopka are leaving the Philadelphia School District at the end of this term. Teachers have gone four years without a contact and five without a pay raise.

Klint Kanopka used to say that he would teach in Philadelphia until he “retired or died.”

He has been a fixture at Academy at Palumbo, the magnet school where he has taught for eight years. He has won national accolades for his teaching and hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for Palumbo, and until recently, he had not missed a day of work.

But it has been nearly four years without a teachers' contract, and nearly five without a raise. Kanopka is not paid for his years of experience or the master’s degree he earned after his pay was frozen. 

“I don’t want to leave Philadelphia, but it feels like a contract will never happen,” said Kanopka, 34, who will enter a Ph.D. program in physics education at Stanford University. Becoming a graduate student and teaching assistant will mean a $4,000 raise.

Citywide, Philadelphia School District teachers will call attention to their plight Monday, using the day -- May 1 is traditionally a day of public activism for unions -- to highlight what they say is a school system whose lack of action on their behalf is driving many away and harming children.

Kanopka and others leaving the district amid the lack of a contract will speak at an after-school rally organized by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Separately, hundreds of teachers -- including the majority of faculty at some schools -- are planning to call out on Monday to protest the continuing lack of a contract. The effort, which is neither sponsored nor endorsed by the PFT, will include morning protests outside individual schools, a grade-in outside school district headquarters, and visits to City Council members.

School system officials say they are aware of the planned action, and they warn that teachers could face consequences. If more than 10 percent of a school faculty use sick or personal time, educators could face discipline, including a possible loss of pay for the day.   

Organizers of the “May Day of Advocacy for Philly Schools” come from the Caucus of Working Educators, an activist group within the PFT. Teachers from Franklin Learning Center, Central High School, Mifflin Elementary, Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, Masterman, and the U School are among those who are participating.

Kevin Geary, a spokesman for the district, said that officials were aware of the planned protest and possibility of widespread teacher absences and were working with principals and the company that provides substitute teachers to make sure schools can function well.

Geary also noted that Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. often points to getting a contract as one of his top priorities.

“We remain committed to this, which is why we remain at the table, in negotiations with the PFT,” Geary said.

He dismissed the notion that teachers are leaving at a higher rate than usual and downplayed what the lack of contract means for the district.

“It’s a great time to be a teacher in Philadelphia, and with a 90 percent teacher retention rate year over year, teachers are choosing to stay and teach in Philadelphia,” he said.

But many remain unconvinced. Like Kanopka, Meghan Donnelly, another Palumbo teacher leaving the district amid the contract stalemate, is part of a crop of educators whose salary would have increased slightly in the years of the pay freeze. (They are scheduled to speak at the PFT rally after school Monday; both are planning to show up for work before that action.)

She is paid as a fourth-year teacher; she has eight years of experience. Instead of the $67,700 she was promised she would be paid by now, her salary is $56,600.  

“Everything has gone up -- bills, cost of living -- and my paycheck has stayed the same, and that’s not tenable,” said Donnelly, 33, an English teacher who is resigning reluctantly and still hunting for a job in New England. “I’m getting to a point in my life where I’d like to have a family. When you’re on a pay freeze, you have no ability to plan.”

Donnelly loves Philadelphia. She loves her students. She knows she signed up for tougher conditions than teaching in the suburbs -- fewer supplies, poorer facilities, more challenges. Every item in her classroom that’s not a desk or a chair was paid for out of her own pocket, she said.

But at some point, enough is enough. The district is on a hiring binge, trying to recruit more than 1,000 new teachers. That means that teachers with the same or less experience than Donnelly could be paid more simply because they are being hired now.

“Everyone feels forgotten and not valued,” Donnelly said. “Everyone is so frustrated with the whole situation. I can’t afford to be a teacher anymore.”

Jessica Way, a registered nurse who teaches students in the medical assistant program at Franklin Learning Center, has helped organize the Working Educators’ actions. Those committing themselves to using personal time are aware that consequences are possible.  

“We feel that we needed to make a strong statement,” Way said. “There’s a lack of care that’s been shown to our public schools. We work in tough conditions, and our kids deserve something better than this.”

Momentum developed, Way said, when the school system said it would not use all of a $65 million annual windfall from the reassessment of the city’s commercial properties toward a teacher contract. (Officials have said that they will instead hire more teachers and save money to pay for programs threatened by a possible elimination of some federal funding streams.)

“Everything else is more of a priority than we are,” said Way, who is not planning on leaving the district -- for now.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that he could not back the coordinated absence, but that he understood where it was coming from.

“It is a very, very clear example of the level of frustration that teachers feel,” Jordan said. “They have just gotten to the breaking point. This is the way they’re showing their displeasure.”

Contract negotiations are scheduled all week, Jordan said. They’re proceeding “very slowly,” he added.